No Greater Love
Southminster Presbyterian Church
January 18, 2015
Martin Luther King
This is my commandment to you: you shall love each other just as I loved you. There is no greater love than to give up your life for your friends. John 15:12-13
“Letter From a Birmingham Jail” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had he survived the garbage strike in Memphis in April of 1968 and had he survived whatever other attempts might have been made on his life in the years that would have followed, and had he survived all the other things that could kill a person, he would have celebrated his 86th birthday this past week, on January 15th.
Whenever I reflect on his life and his ministry and his activism as I did again this weekend when Beverly and I watched the film, Selma, I am amazed at how young he was. He died at 39.
His Letter from Birmingham Jail was written when he was only 33. He was 34 when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the nation’s capital, 35 when he received the Nobel Peace Prize, and 36 when he marched from Selma to Montgomery.
That is the event that is the focus of the film. This action finally pushed President Johnson to put forth legislation to remove all barriers to voting. Martin Luther King was 36 when he faced down the President of the United States.
In his last speech, at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in Memphis on April 3rd, 1968 he spoke about life and longevity. He said:
Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
He was killed the next morning outside of his motel room by an assassin’s bullet.
There is no greater love than to give up your life for your friends.
That quote created by the author of the Gospel of John was attributed to Jesus, another who died young.
King and his friends joked about death as they contemplated the dangers of the march through rural Alabama. “It is a beautiful day. Yes, a beautiful day to die,” and so forth. Dark humor to keep the demons at bay.
King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, did not joke about it. The film pointed out the tensions, struggles, and pain this ministry placed on their personal lives. Living under the gun, the incredible pressures from within and without the movement, the criticism, the violence, the bombing of churches, the surveillance by the FBI, the phone calls seething with crazed hatred. Perhaps it is amazing that he lived as long as he did.
King was not perfect. Some of his own choices and betrayals caused great pain. Despite his personal indiscretions and failures as a husband, Coretta Scott King stood with him. In the midst of it all, Martin and Coretta lived with boldness, forgiveness and with love for each other and for what they both believed was a higher calling. Coretta Scott King at least as much as her husband deserved the Nobel Peace Prize.
I want to go back to 1963 to Birmingham, Alabama. If I can be directive, I invite you to re-read or to read for the first time, “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” this weekend, perhaps in between football games. It has become a defining text for civil disobedience.
He wrote it while in his jail cell in Birmingham on scraps of paper that had been smuggled into him. His letter was a response to a letter that had been published in a local paper that had been signed by eight white Alabama clergymen. Their letter was called, “A Call to Unity.” This letter criticized King and his methods.
The reason King was in jail in the first place is because he broke the law. He disobeyed a judge’s order and he was arrested for it. On April 3rd of 1963 marches and sit-ins against racial segregation had been coordinated by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other civil rights groups in Birmingham.
A week later, on April 10th circuit judge W. A. Jenkins issued an injunction against “parading, boycotting, trespassing, and picketing.” Leaders said they would disobey. On April 12th, Good Friday, King and other leaders and marchers were arrested and jailed.
While King was in jail, someone smuggled into him the newspaper that contained the article by the eight white clergymen entitled “A Call to Unity.” This statement from the white clergymen including the moderator of the Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church, urged quote “our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations.” The letter said that they agreed that there were “racial problems” but that they should be handled in the court system not in the streets. The court rulings should be obeyed.
The letter went on to say that the demonstrations were quote “directed and led in part by outsiders” and were “unwise and untimely.” The letter said that the demonstrations while peaceful, nevertheless incited hatred and violence.
King was provoked. He had no paper so he wrote his response in the margins of the newspaper and other scraps of paper provided by a black trustee.
In response to the accusation that the demonstrations were organized by outsiders, he wrote:
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
In response to the criticism that the demonstrations are “untimely”, King wrote:
My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
In regards to breaking laws, King wrote:
In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
In regards to the peaceful protests inciting violence, King wrote:
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.
King expressed his disappointment with the church:
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
King’s powerful, passionate, and articulate letter is relevant today. Actions for social justice are often met with quote “Calls for Unity.” That call for unity is subtle and deceptive. It blames those who seek change as disturbers of the peace. But what they call peace is not peace. It is only quiet. Authentic peace is the consequence of justice. That authentic peace requires people to make some noise.
How often have we heard this “call for unity” in the church. It is sanctimonious rhetoric designed to shame and silence those who are speaking and acting on behalf of equality. I have heard again and again from leadership in our denomination and from media outlets in our denomination and from moderate clergy in our denomination that ordination equality or marriage equality is divisive.
It will cause people to leave the church. It is not time yet. You need to go slow.
I am glad that Southminster didn’t go slow. I am grateful that this session sent the marriage equality amendment to the presbytery and eventually to the General Assembly and because of that equality is a step closer in our denomination.
Equality and justice do not just happen. It isn’t magic nor is it simply a product of the natural flow history. There is no such thing. Change happens because people make decisions and act on them. Those decisions may appear untimely or loud or tense or unsettling. But that is only because too many of us have become accustomed to a status quo.
Change requires people to use their voices and thus raise consciousness. Change also requires people to listen. We need to listen to the voices that unsettle us and that challenge us. That voice may be the voice of Spirit.
According to our own Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith, we hear these words:
The Spirit gives us courage…
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
Throughout our scriptures, a recurring theme is Spirit coming to someone unexpectedly summoning them to act. Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Ruth, Deborah, Mary, Jesus. It is a voice that at first unsettles and disturbs. The quick knee-jerk response is
“Not me, not now. It is untimely. What will the neighbors think?”
Kind of like the “Call to Unity” by the eight white Alabama clergy.
The difference between the heroes and the sheroes on the one hand, and the ne’er-do-wells on the other in our scriptural tradition, like Pharoah and Herod and so forth, is that when Spirit speaks the heroes and the sheroes eventually listen, really listen, and then act accordingly.
When I think of those two letters, A Call to Unity by the white clergymen who history has forgotten outside of that letter and King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail, I don’t think one can see a more clear distinction between these responses to the call for justice.
It really doesn’t matter how old or how young you are or your place in life. Spirit can invite us at anytime to act on behalf of justice and of love in a specific way. Our lives have their worth when they are given for others.
There is no greater love than to give up your life for your friends.
Where is Spirit calling us?
And for what and to whom will we give our lives?