Have you ever had that jarring self-discovery when you realize YOU might be the problem? This is particularly challenging when those calling out your transgressions are speaking to you through the bars of a jail cell.
Three sets of jail-bound voices are echoing in my life right now. Perhaps they are speaking to you as well if only you have ears to hear. All of these voices were thrown in jail under (false?) accusations of causing a riot. All of them were being motivated to acts of righteousness to further causes much larger than themselves.
The first voice is Paul, the apostle responsible for much of the Christian New Testament bible who was arrested for starting a riot in the temple in Jerusalem and wrote letters from jail both in Caesarea and Rome. His letters from jail were addressing nascent Christian gatherings that were navigating the gaping divides between Jew and Gentile, between Roman and non-citizens, between slave and free, between law and love. Paul’s answers aren’t easy but he continually calls his listeners to higher purposes.
The second voice is a pair of letters written as protests around racial injustice flared. One letter was “A Call for Unity” which appealed to “Law and Order and Common Sense” of individuals to stop protesting and allow the courts to handle the injustices. It was signed by eight ministers and rabbis including two bishops from my own tradition. The responding letter was reasoned and powerful. It has been recorded in the annals of history as “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Revered Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. He was jailed and charged with “parading without a permit.”
Each time I read it, I feel its steely accusatory gaze falling directly on me, “the white moderate.” How easy it is to say now is not the time to protest, that the courts will handle it, law and order must be maintained to achieve their stated goals. And then King’s words sting me.
The white moderate who is more devoted to “order’ than to justice. Who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels that he can set the time-table for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
The last set of voices fill my daily news feed as Black Lives Matter protesters get arrested decrying the continued devaluation of Black Lives by our police, by our justice system, and by the entrenched systemic power structures that I am a part of. I listen. I seek to identify and root out my own prejudices. I push back my impulse to promote moderation. I seek out ways to try and become the change we all so desperately seek. I hear King’s voice as he longs for the church to not merely be a thermometer that records the ideas and principles of popular opinion but a thermostat that transforms the mores of society.
I recognize that many people seek to bend King’s words to their own agenda and perhaps I am guilty of that. I do challenge us all to go back to this seminal letter and reread it for ourselves. It may speak volumes if we just have ears to hear.
Pastor Rob Kirby is the director and campus minister at WestM. The ecumenical campus ministry represents the Disciples of Christ, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist denominations on the Oregon State University campus.
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