Letter from Birmingham Jail

Rev. Dr. King

King’s letter from the Birmingham jail was written in response to an open letter, published in the Birmingham News, calling on those engaged in non-violent resistance to give up that method, and pursue their cause in the courts. The letter was signed by seven Alabama Protestant ministers and a rabbi.

King’s response, his now-famous letter from jail, is in the top five pieces of public/political speech in our nation’s history. Like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, the Letter combines passion, logic, and wisdom in a way that is deeply satisfactory to a just and compassionate sensibility about how our common life should be. For King, the time was ripe to prod the nation’s conscience through peaceful protest. Moderation had become just another way to continue denying a whole race of people their equal rights.

Not often remarked, though very plain in the letter, is King’s critique of the moderate church– and, by extension, his critique of the moderate churchmen to whom he is responding. “Moderate” here is not a compliment. In a similar vein, it reminds me of how Bernard of Clairvaux warned against “lukewarmness” in the spiritual life:

Sometimes halfway is really nowhere.

Here is an excerpt from “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The year is 1963:

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust….

via About Dr. King | The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.



Pope, Yes

When we were in college, a friend of mine did not call the fast-food chicken franchise “Popeye’s,” but called it rather “Pope Yes.” As in, “Let’s go get some fried chicken at Pope Yes.” In the mid-1980s, this was his intentional affirmation of John Paul II.

To affirm Francis in the same way now, is strikingly appropriate: Pope, Yes. To the dismay of some Catholics who seem to be motivated by the nostalgia for an imagined glorious past, this pope is hitting the right notes, as followers of Jesus– Catholic and Protestant alike– try to bring Christianity back from irrelevance. (Nostalgic Protestants have the same kind of dismay as nostalgic Catholics regarding church renewal, even if the details are different). The larger narrative of Christianity in Western civilization over the last half-century follows the Catholic storyline in North America and Europe: decline.

This pope does not seem interested in trying to force new wine into old wineskins. Indeed, Pope Francis invokes the metaphor that guides this blog– balance– as he calls for more humility and grace in the church’s dealings with both its own flock, and with the wider world. Confidence in the truth of the gospel and trust in the Lord Jesus should not add up to a hectoring, holier-than-thou moralism. In fact, such a confidence and such a trust should add up to something altogether different.

That “something different,” Francis indicates, should have “the freshness and fragrance of the gospel… simple, profound, radiant.”

This is good news for anyone interested in the Jesus Movement for our time. Pope, Yes.

Below is an excerpt from a Commonweal editorial on the Pope’s interview with the world’s Jesuit publications:

Even more refreshing was the pope’s insistence that “thinking with the church” does not mean thinking only with the hierarchy. “The church [is]…the people of God, pastors and people together. The church is the totality of God’s people.” It has been a long time since that bit of orthodox wisdom has been heard from Rome. In a similar fashion, Francis warned of the dangers of certainty in the life of faith. “If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him.”

via A New Balance | Commonweal Magazine.

Resident Aliens

Hauerwas and Willimon’s “Resident Aliens” (1989)

This book’s cover’s quaint font betrays its late 1980s publication date. The main idea still pertains, however, and now even moreso: we Americans don’t live in a Christian culture today, if ever we did. I don’t mean this, as some do, in a narrow, nostalgic-for-lost-morality way: restoring purity to naughty words in song lyrics would not restore Christian culture. The idea is more radical: there is no such thing as a national culture that is Christian. To be a follower of Jesus is to be– more or less, but never not– counter-cultural. It is, in a way and always, to be a foreigner, an alien, in this land. Home is not here.

Many of us live in a material luxury and physical comfort unprecedented in the history of the world. Seemingly removed from the struggle of keeping body and soul together (no one who reads this blog is concerned about a failed harvest leading to famine), the soothing strum of American consumerism in which we participate (with varying degrees of investment) lulls us into a sleepy, false sense of security: we’re safe here; this is home.

To be a follower of Jesus is to snap out of that narcotic snooze, and recognize that lie. Our only security is with Him; our true home is with the Transcendent One. From that awareness will come a re-awakened church, re-committed to proclaiming the gospel and re-dedicated to exposing the false twin-gods of our culture: invulnerability and control. Such a re-awakened church will embody and practice a trust in the Holy One– the Holy One who always defeats the false gods who spawn neurotic anxiety, ruptured relationships, fear-based violence, and exploitative economic and political arrangements. Home is not here. Home is where reconciliation is complete, and the lion lies down with the lamb.

In the meantime, we walk in this foreign land, and point toward home.

Who Needs Church?

A recent Christian Science Monitor editorial asks, “Who needs church?” My answer: without a radical revision of purpose and practice, no one needs church, in the way that church is currently formed and expressed.

The usual caveats apply. I understand that vibrant churches exist– churches that are alive in the Holy Spirit, churches that are changing people’s lives and transforming communities. These are churches that have died to the old ways, and have risen to new life for a new day. They have embraced “not-knowing”– realizing that the church in North America can no longer rely on the old package of tired answers that perhaps one day in the past was sufficient, but which no longer serves. We live in troubled times, and the church has been slower than slow in responding.

While these vibrant churches do exist, and while the deep warming glow of the gospel of Jesus is as relevant to human flourishing as it has ever been, what we have received as the function and practice of “church” is not adequate to that gospel. Too often the church acts like a club, and while it may be a community, it is a community that must be committed to giving itself away. Many people love their church too much, and the gospel not enough. In that instance, you end up with a church that a few people want to preserve in the name of nostalgia, but that no one else needs.

People need the good news, not the church. Or, more positively: people need the church to the extent– and only to the extent– that the church is the direct and immediate expression of the good news. People need the church no more than that, and no less.

An excerpt and the link follow:

Who needs church? The purpose of church may not be apparent in everyday life. But there comes a moment when we all wonder if everyday life is all there is. Church is waiting to help answer that question.

via Who needs church? – CSMonitor.com.

Years Out of Date

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini

As if to amplify the point of our previous post, regarding Roman Catholics and condom use in the context of a committed marriage, we get this news of the recent death of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. The Cardinal, in an interview not long before he died, said that the Catholic Church was “200 years out of date.” At least part of what he had in mind, is the Church’s teachings on sexual ethics.

It is heartening for those of us who believe that Christian churches can still be relevant, to hear a voice high in the hierarchy calling for revision and renewal. And, as I tell my Roman Catholic priest friends: it’s not just the Catholics who have problems. Too many American Protestant churches are a significant number of years out of date, too. We must listen with humility for God’s promptings into a new future, and act with conviction.

Here is the HuffPost Religion article on Cardinal Martini:

ROME, Sept 1 (Reuters) – The former archbishop of Milan and papal candidate Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini said the Catholic Church was “200 years out of date” in his final interview before his death, published on Saturday.

Martini, once favoured by Vatican progressives to succeed Pope John Paul II and a prominent voice in the church until his death at the age of 85 on Friday, gave a scathing portrayal of a pompous and bureaucratic church failing to move with the times.

“Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our rituals and our cassocks are pompous,” Martini said in the interview published in [sic] Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

“The Church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the pope and the bishops. The paedophilia scandals oblige us to take a journey of transformation,” he said in the interview.

A New Church for a New World

How Will the Church Evolve in this New World?

This isn’t news: we need a new church for a new world.

Yesterday at a meeting of local clergy, one of my colleagues enthusiastically extolled Diana Butler Bass’s thinking and writing on Christian churches in America today. What we have known as church is passing away. Our culture, while desperate to hang onto the trappings of Christianity, is increasingly indifferent to the message and meaning of the Christ. The challenge is to imagine what church will be, as we move into a different day. What, some 50 years ago, used to be the implicit support of the wider culture, is no longer support at all.

Some followers of Jesus are already practicing new ways of being the church, responding to the challenges of our time with imagination and faithfulness. These new ways aim to shed the weight of so-called traditions that have nothing to do with the gospel. For example, instead of spending energy on self-pre-occupied institutional maintenance, some renewed expressions of church explicitly and intentionally make sure that their energy is focused on serving others. Now there’s an idea to make church relevant again!

I love this Brian McLaren quotation: “If you have a new world, you need a new church. You have a new world.”

via YSOP- Youth Service Opportunities Project.