January 17, 2017
Beloved Sisters and Brothers,
The work and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. continues to have relevance nearly 49 years after his death. He was one of our own, as a Baptist, and yesterday, many celebrated his birth. Yet, in places like Biloxi, Mississippi there is an effort underfoot to homogenize his life and rename the holiday established in his honor to Great Americans Day. Despite this effort, we know that the specific life and impact of this particular individual cannot be erased as long as we pause to remember his life, work, and words. We are proud of his legacy (not just because he was a Baptist—in some ways that identity is inconsequential), but because of the impact his life continues to have in the world.
I was drawn to read again Dr. King’s epic missive, Letter from a Birmingham Jail. As you read it, you may be surprised by its current relevance a half-century after it was written. If you were to substitute certain places, names, and no longer used words with our current context and characters, you may astonished. Below are various quotes from the letter that I hope will compel you to read the letter again, or for the first time, in its entirety.
Some have asked, "Why didn't you give the new administration time to act?" The only answer that I can give to this inquiry is that the new administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one before it acts.
- We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
- 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.
- We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
- Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?
It is disconcerting to think of a man like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., sitting in any jail—imprisoned for no good reason. One consequence of his imprisonment though are his enduring words that still speak to us through the decades. However, imprisonment for no good reason still happens daily in our country. Current statistics cut us to the core when they indicate a likelihood of 1 out of 3 black men spending some time behind bars during their lives. The documentary Thirteenth, crafted by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, currently available on Netflix, exposes the sordid reality of a systematic, coded and often successful attempt to subjugate the spirit and bodies of African Americans since the abolition of slavery. I encourage you to watch this hard to watch film. Yet, in order to change ugly realities in our society, we have to face those things that are painful to watch with eyes and ear wide open. Let those who have eyes see, and those with ears to hear.
This week also, we gird our loins to face the reality of a formal transition and an apparent power partnership between the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government. For many of us, there’s reason to be alarmed as we move from one President to another. With the flagrant and unprecedented use of abusive words to attack persons with other perspectives, such as the ones most recently levied against Congressman John Lewis (an American Baptist), coupled with a seeming erosion of established principles and values (e.g. access to healthcare, ethical understandings, and avoiding the appearance of conflict of interest), many are watching, praying and ready to respond as necessary.
One of the practices of our faith is to remember our past experiences that have given us the strength to face the unknown during uncertain times. The truth be told, all times are uncertain, so we are always called to remember. We remember that we were led out of Egypt, and our resolve to not return there. We remember the acts of our Savior Jesus, his life, death and resurrection. Through Jesus, we know we are loved by God, and although at times we bear our own crosses, we know these crosses do not have the last word. We also remember the fortitude and faith of known and unnamed saints who have fought the good fight for their own benefit, as well as for the benefit of their neighbors and those who would come after them. We remember and rely also on the true words from ancient and contemporary apostles, prophets and priests that guide us. We are also encouraged in the singing of songs and the receiving of blessings. The words of a well-known hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” and the benediction found in I Thessalonians 5, moved me deeply when I heard them in worship on Sunday. Let me share them with you:
“Fear not, I am with thee, oh, be not dismayed,
for I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
upheld by My gracious, omnipotent hand.
“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
for I will be with thee thy trouble to bless,
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
my grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
the flame shall not harm thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
“The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose,
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing... And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and will do this. (I Thessalonians 5:11-23, NRSV)
In the hope of the Gospel, I remain yours,
Cheryl F. Dudley