In April, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after disobeying a court ordered injunction, was put in jail in Birmingham, Alabama for leading nonviolent sit-ins and marches for social justice. The local authorities were using fire hoses and police dogs against the peaceful demonstrators.
Eight white clergy leaders, including a local Catholic bishop, wrote a letter to King, referring to him as an "outsider." Noting that while "hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political tradition," they added, "actions that incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems." They ended by appealing to law and order and common sense. In sum, they blamed the victim.
At the same time, Vatican II was issuing a call for Catholics and all people of good will to "read the signs of the times." Soon afterwards, Catholics in Latin America launched the Liberation Theology movement. Dr. King, of course, was already correctly reading the signs of the times and practicing true, North American, Pentecostal liberation theology.
In response to the eight clergymen, King wrote his famous, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." At Pentecost, the Spirit of Christ broke into history in a new, evolutionary way. King's letter is worth re-reading today in light of the general struggles within the Catholic church, and of our challenge to be prophetically active, "Pentecost" Christians within our personal area of influence in our own society and culture.
Here are some quotes from King's letter--in black. My comments are in red.
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.
There is no need to wait for the clergy and hierarchy to give up their privileged status in the church. We are all "Pentecost" People of God, all sharing equal spiritual dignity and all called to be discerning, prophetically active expressions of Christ here and now.
One may well ask, "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that, "an unjust law is no law at all."
A church law that is not received by all the people must be investigated since it may possibly not be a just law. We must follow our well informed conscience and act upon our discerned moral responsibilities for peace and justice in our church and in today's society now.
...I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. ["pay-pray-and-obey" Catholic]. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's [church's] great stumbling block in his [its] stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku klux Klan, but the white moderate [the "pay-pray-and-obey" Catholic] 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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action:" who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom [for church reform and obedience to all its teachings]; who live by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro [the prophetically active Catholics and Catholic reform groups] to wait for a "more convenient season." 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 know your works: I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. Rev. 3:15-17.]
Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless effort of men [and women] willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social [spiritual] stagnation. ...Now is the time to lift our national [church] policy from the quicksand of racial [spiritual] injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
...I have not said to my people, "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of non-violent [discerning, peaceful, healing and loving] direct [world-changing, prophetic] action.
In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. ...Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.
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 [twenty first] century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner 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. ...Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times.
As the sub-title of this blog states: People are suffering. Waiting is not an option.
P. S. I just read that a newly published book, Blessed are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther Kings, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders and the, "Letter from Birmingham Jail," by Jonathan Bass, reports that the Catholic bishop I mentioned in this post, Joseph Durick, was deeply influenced by King's letter and, against strong opposition from many Catholics, became an active advocate for racial justice.