A time to…

Posted by secondchurch on January - 31 - 2019

For 19 years, I led church work teams to northern Mississippi for a week in Coahoma County with Habitat for Humanity.  My mother was a community organizer there after she retired from teaching.  The first time I ever visited Mississippi was in 1965 when, on a family vacation before interstate highways, my family drove through some backroads and small communities of the south and we saw, first-hand, the remnants and symptoms of segregation and severe poverty.  I was horrified, even as a child.  I am horrified still.

For all of the 19 years of leading work groups, our week would either begin or end with a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.  A remarkable museum built on to the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the exhibits have never failed to move me.  One exhibit allows you to walk on to a full size bus and sit behind or even right beside the full size figure of Rosa Parks and listen to the recorded voice of a bus driver growing increasingly threatening, insisting that she move to the back of the bus.  Other exhibits take you past a lunch counter above which is showing a film of young white adolescent boys surrounding in a threatening way a couple of young African Americans sitting at the counter. And there is a burned out bus, and the Birmingham jail cell, and copies of correspondence and the motel room and the balcony.  I remember one year visiting the museum with my own brown-skinned daughter when she was just an adolescent.  She was 13, I think.  She grew very quiet as we went along the museum’s path.  When we finally exited the museum to drive back to our work site she asked me “did you know this was going on? Did you do anything about it?”

It’s a troubling thing to realize how much we actually do know about what is going on.  And to ask ourselves, are we doing anything about it?  What is IT, you may be wondering.  What could possibly be happening that is as bad as the way blacks were treated in the years leading up to the civil rights movement? – the segregation, the lynchings, the degradation and dehumanization, the unthinking violence.  Well, let’s see.  Have you read the paper recently? Watched the news?  Did you see footage of that white adolescent boy standing in the face of the elderly Native American man who was drumming and singing in Washington D.C.?  And have you bought that there is more to the story, and because there is, that negates the hostile smirk on that young man’s face?  Do you wonder about a family that hires a publicist to interpret his side of the exchange? 

Did you read the report from the Departments of Human Services and Homeland Security respectively, telling us they have no idea how many children were actually separated from their parents at the border? 

Or this – an interesting juxtaposition that I think reveals quite a bit about the state of racism in our nation today – in the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which watches and tracks hate groups across the country, reported that the number of hate groups in the United States, according to their consistent definition of a hate group as an organization of five or more members whose organizing principle is either the supremacy of white protestant Christians or the denigration and disparagement of groups of people based on race, ethnicity, or religion, doubled.  The number of such groups doubled the first year Barack Obama was president.  Whereas, in the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, according to the FBI, there was a 17% increase of hate crimes, with 3 out of 5 such criminal acts targeting a person’s race or ethnicity, and 1 out of 5 targeting a person of any religion not Christian. I leave it to you to take note that the first statistic is about joining or forming groups, while the second one shows resulting criminal actions taken.

Did we know? Did we do anything about it?

In January and then again on Good Friday of 1963, a group of moderate, white religious leaders, leaders who had been sympathetic to the plight of the Negro in Alabama, and were themselves opposed to segregation, published open letters in several local newspapers.  They urged local Negroes, Alabama Negroes, not Georgia Negroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., to wait for the court system to act and then engage in quiet and calm negotiations with white public officials, including the police, to address racial inequities in the law and economic and social construct.  These letter-writers were clergy who had previously spoken out, at considerable personal risk, on behalf of the rights of the black community in Birmingham.  They were opposed to segregation.  Their public letters were intended to discredit both Dr. King and outraged segregationists alike.  These were people who, in today’s vernacular, might be saying “trust the process, Dr. King”, as if “the process” were actually trustworthy.  And they commended the media and the law enforcement officials in particular for remaining calm, protecting Birmingham from violence.  Violence, they believed, was the greater enemy than racism, and the key strategy in the Birmingham Holy Week confrontation was to take non-violent action which would, inevitably provoke a violent response.  The ministers’ uninvited counsel sparked the writing of the strongest and still disheartingly relevant indictments of progressive religion – Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

In his book, Blessed are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr.,  Eight White Religious Leaders, and The Letter from Birmingham Jail” (Louisiana State University Press, 2001), Jonathon Bass sought to understand those moderate religious leaders.  He wrote, “The extremist actions of white segregationists convinced this small group of Alabama church leaders to speak out publicly in January of 1963.  They put aside religious and personal differences and provided a public display of tempered, Judeo-Christian unity.  Their calm words brought praise from white integrationists and ridicule from radical segregationists.  But then in April, 1963, they spoke again, against what they viewed as black extremism.  This latter pronouncement brought condemnation from Martin Luther King and other integrationists sympathetic to his tactics.  Clearly in the middle, these religious leaders disagreed with the integrationist cries of ‘now’ and the segregationists’ demands of ‘never’.  They hoped for a utilitarian solution to the racial crisis.  In their estimation, both the belligerence of defiant white southerners and the mass-demonstration tactics of the civil rights activists led to violence.  Violence, above all, was the enemy that threatened peace, harmony, and order, undermined the moral climate of the region, and served as the opponent of progress.” (p.12)

In his reply from the Birmingham jail cell to the white clergy, Dr. King’s refuting arguments are some of the most inspired, lucid words ever written to the American Church about social change, the long-term violence of racism itself, and the violent reaction to non-violent resistance to injustice.  “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.  I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and that when they fail to do this they become dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.  I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is merely a necessary phase of transition from an obnoxious negative peace, where the Negro passively accepted an unjust plight, to a substance-filled positive peace, where all people will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.  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.” (first published in Why We Can’t Wait, 1963, later in A Testament of Hope, published by Coretta Scott King, 1986,“Letter from Birmingham City Jail”, p.295)

The issues of racism that still infect our nation’s soul were not completely remedied by the Civil Rights Movement, that we all know.  And the election of our first African American president did not mean that we are a post-racist society.  On the contrary, as those earlier statistics reveal. So it is with so many of the issues facing us today.  Religious extremism and its expression in terrorism is a complex problem.  Economic injustice and the uneasy truce so many of us have made with wealth is a complex problem.  Public, political discourse may actually be hitting a new low, rather than growing more civilized.  How nations live together in global peace and prosperity is convoluted on our best days.  The international migration problem is immense.  On any given day, 3% of the world’s population chooses to leave their home of origin with the intent to relocate to another country. Two hundred fifty eight million people are living outside their country of birth.

Here’s the thing – the principles to which religious people of good will give our loyalty have not changed since 1963.  They haven’t actually changed since those of us who are Christian were first given them from Jesus himself.  Their authority of those principles in our culture has certainly change, but their truth has not.  Human dignity is a God-given right because to be alive at all is a God-given gift.  The threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  A violent backlash against protest and the demand for justice is one more skirmish in the whole history of the violence of injustice since, well since the crucifixion itself.  Humanity is one living organism at whose heart is the divine Creator God, so that when we violate the heart of another human being, we violate the heart of God.  And the Church, the American, Protestant, progressive Christian church, while moving with all the haste of a stampeding caterpillar, is just as complicit in the injustice we see all around us today as it was when those moderate clergy wrote in 1963. No wonder justice activists are turning to secular movements for solidarity and community and support, rather than the Church.  We have thrown ourselves full force on the side of the Ecclesiastes equation – a time to keep silent.

Of all the reasons I am grateful for the annual observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, highest among them is that it inspires me to read again the words of one who was wise, courageous, faithful, shrewd and impatient.  He was young when he began his ministry and he was young when he was murdered.  But he has joined the ageless in the struggle for justice and peace and he has reminded us that patience is not a virtue in the struggle for human dignity and justice.

“To everything there is a season”.  Let us exit the season of passive silence, shall we?  And enter, full force, a season of robust, courageous, forceful, loving, faithful work for justice.  Amen.

A sermon preached at The Second Church in Newton UCC   

January 27, 2019            

Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor



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