When I got home that evening, I fired up my computer and decided to reread "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I wanted to read it because I knew it was addressed primarily to the religious clergy of the Birmingham area. As I read this wonderful letter again, I was reminded of the terrible plight of blacks in America - even after a Civil Was that supposed gave them their freedom from slavery - even after legislation was passed that sought to undo the unjust segregation and injustice that was still rampant 100 years after the Civil War. Particularly painful was rereading sections of Dr. King Jr's letter where he described the "degenerating sense of nobodiness" that began to cloud the mind of his 5 year old daughter - and that settled in like a infectious fog on the generations of black men and women who lived through the injustices of many generations. Please read these words that I am about to quote - because I think it may be helpful to those of us who have not had to deal with systemic prejudice and racism.
"I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say wait. But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” men and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”;—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience." (King, Dr. Martin Luther, "Letter from Birmingham Jail")
Re-reading this letter was so helpful for me - in trying to begin to get a handle on just how difficult it has been - and in many ways still is - to battle injustice and feel like an entire system is against you. I have to admit that I don't know this - although there is a very real time when any Christian who believes and sets their standards by the Scriptures in regard to morality will face this kind of situation in our nation. I also must admit that neither do I fully grasp what it is like to be a police officer seeking to do the right thing - and facing a growing distrust and opposition.
Guess you would like for me to get to the point of all this. Honestly, I am not sure yet of my point, except to say that I need to spend more time understanding others and hearing what they have to say. I need to not have my own knee-jerk reactions to things that frustrate me. Dr. King Jr. spoke of how the non-violence leadership he gave required those involved to do engage in a four-part preparation. I quote Dr. King Jr. again,
"In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: (1) collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive; (2) negotiation; (3) self-purification; and (4) direct action." (King, Dr. Martin Luther, "Letter from Birmingham Jail")
When I read this, I had to admit that I've not gone through these wise steps as I've encountered the difficult days which we've faced over the past couple of years. I realize that I need to do a better job of collecting facts about things - and not just reading one short article or listening/watching my favorite version of the news. I need to be better at negotiating - which I've come to realize means "listening" to those who are different than me. I need to do a much better job of "self-purification" so that my heart is brought into agreement with the heart of God and with the Prince of peace, Jesus Christ - rather than just quickly reacting to what I don't like about what I am hearing. And then finally - I need to do a far better job of hearing God about where I need to engage in direct action in seeking to be a peace-maker in a world that is increasingly being set on fire by words spoken too quickly and too harshly.
The point I do want to make is this - too often I - and I hope I can say we without sounding too sanctimonious - have spoken in terms of "us vs. them" in what I've said in response to situations, laws, and court decisions over the past decade. It is still my desire to speak the truth in love (and by truth I refer to God's Word and a Biblical worldview). It is still my desire to keep the main thing the main thing (which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and how it speaks to the ultimate issue of mankind's sin against God - a problem that affects every person alive on earth). But I would like to remember one last statement of Dr. King Jr. as I do these things.
"Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all of their scintillating beauty." (King, Dr. Martin Luther, "Letter from Birmingham Jail")
May God give us both wisdom and grace as we pursue such things and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which promises to make both sides in every issue into one new man in Christ Jesus - the only real hope against racism in ours or any other society.