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.

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Some Notes on Why I Became a Christian

The language of art and music is most appropriate to describe why I became a Christian, because my religious belief is more analogous to my appreciation of, say, a Brahms symphony, than it is to having been convinced of the veracity of a set of truth claims. I find religion more like a song to sing, than a string of propositions leading to a conclusion. So:

I became a Christian because it rings true to my ear. He are some of the resonate notes:

Grace. We live only by receiving love that we don’t deserve: it is gift, unearned and therefore free. I am not talking about god. I am talking about babies. All they do/we did is eat, cry, soil diapers, and sleep. We arrived on the planet entirely helpless and dependent, devoid of skill, co-ordination, and language, and through our parents’ acts of sacrificial love, we lived. Now, as adults, the giving and receiving of this grace to one another makes life meaningful: the gifts of generous hearts.

A religion that understands the divine essence to include something as basic as the grace of sacrificial love, seems true.

Vulnerability. Intimate human relationships are impossible without vulnerability, and yet we are (for good reason) terrified of vulnerability. We can get hurt. We open ourselves to rejection. But we know that deep living requires our willingness to put ourselves out there, to take the risk of openness, to touch people that others shun. Vulnerability is the only way to abundant living, because it’s the only way to form meaningful connections with others.

A religion that understands the divine essence to include vulnerability, seems true.

Bodies. Bodies are important. While distinguishing between bodies and spirits helps us conceptualize two aspects of our being that feel distinct from one another, Christian anthropology, in keeping with the Hebraic understanding, sees bodies as spiritual; or, conversely, sees spirit as enfleshed. This is unlike the Greek understanding, where the immortal soul finds temporary housing in the body, only to be freed at the body’s death. Resurrection, while beyond what reason can think, is consistent with a refusal to regard our bodies as mere receptacles of the soul. I like a religion that sees bodies as inseparable from spirit.

via Christian Images.

Religious People in the Movies

Philomena Lee

Apparently “Philomena,” starring Judi Dench, is surpassing expectations at the box office. Good. If you haven’t seen it, set aside some time to take in the story of a mother searching for the son she had to give up, 50 years ago.

No spoilers ahead– I’m not going to recount the story here. One lingering reflection, however, has to do with a nun who is portrayed as especially– even cruelly– bitter and moralistic: Sister Hildegarde.

As a professional religious person, I pay attention to how professional religious people are portrayed in movies. Dithering blowhard fools is one characterization: think of the priest in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and his invocation of the “Holy Goat,” um, er, “Holy Spigot;” or in “The Princess Bride,” when Humperdink and Buttercup stand before the priest who, nasally and with a speech impediment, begins to sermonize about “Twooo Wuv……” Then there’s the saccharine Father Mulcahy of the TV series “MASH”: innocent, pious, toothless– likable but largely irrelevant. The best I could come up with, are the nuns in “The Sound of Music,” who, aside from having some singing ability, actually engage in an act of moral courage that helps the von Trapps escape from Austria (and open a 3-star resort in Stowe).

And now we have Sister Hildegarde, a character who seems to worship her religion, rather than her God. Usurping the role of judge, Sister Hildegarde metes out a punishment that can only be called cruel. She doesn’t get the last word, however, and in this movie the last word goes to the character who is closer to the heart of divine mercy than those who appear to be the professional religious. In that way, “Philomena” is not so far removed from the Bible’s newer testament.

via Box office surprise: Judi Dench’s “Philomena” – CBS News.

Keep Saturn in Saturnalia– The Sixth Day of Christmas

A Pagan Rejoinder to “Keep Christ in Christmas”

The atheist/agnostic group Freedom from Religion Foundation bought this “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia” billboard in Pitman, New Jersey, in response to a “Keep Christ in Christmas” banner that hangs in town. Someone was offended, and tried to burn down the billboard. As the article below wryly notes, the steel support beams suffered minor charring.

The billboard and ensuing hubbub provoke a couple thoughts. First, in this particular example, the atheists have a better sense of humor than the dour Christians of misdirected earnestness.

Second, with regard to the wider culture: has anyone in Pitman noticed that Christ hasn’t been in Christmas since at least 1980? If he were in Christmas, we would be paying more attention to Isaiah’s prophetic vision: beating swords into plowshares (2:4), assuring the fearful (35:4), and dealing graciously with the poor and socially inferior (11:4).

The excerpt follows, with the link below:

A South Jersey billboard proclaiming “Keep the Saturn in Saturnalia” was torched Tuesday night by two unidentified men who fled in a pickup truck after only charring the sign’s steel support beams.The billboard, erected as a cheeky counterpoint to a “Keep Christ in Christmas” banner in downtown Pitman, refers to the ancient pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice, held in mid-December to honor the Roman god, Saturn.

The incendiary incident is only the latest to be sparked by the billboard, which was paid for by a national group of atheists. According to town officials, many Pitman residents lost their holiday cheer when they woke up Friday morning to see the message plastered at the intersection of two heavily trafficked roads….

via Attempt to burn down atheists’ Saturnalia billboard in South Jersey.

Another Critique of Capitalism

David Simon

Five days ago, Pope Francis was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” just a few days after releasing the first major document of his papacy in which he criticized the economy of “exclusion and inequality.” Once again we say: “Pope, Yes!”

Relatedly, journalist and TV producer David Simon recently gave a speech at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. In his speech, Simon said that capitalism has “achieved its dominance without regard to a social compact, without being connected to any other metric for human progress.”

Both the pope and David Simon are simply pointing to the obvious chasm between the well-off and the poor, and asking: does this need to be?

Christianity has become a marginalized religion in North America. We might as well claim our spot on the margins, and join the pope (and David Simon, and others) in exposing the human cost of economic practices that separate people into winners and losers, and that increasingly make it difficult for those who have “lost” to have hope. As Paul Raushenbush has written, we who are part of the Jesus Movement would do this not because we are Marxists, but because we are followers of Jesus.

I recommend taking some time with Simon’s words. An excerpt and link follow below.

America is a country that is now utterly divided when it comes to its society, its economy, its politics. There are definitely two Americas. I live in one, on one block in Baltimore that is part of the viable America, the America that is connected to its own economy, where there is a plausible future for the people born into it. About 20 blocks away is another America entirely. It’s astonishing how little we have to do with each other, and yet we are living in such proximity….

via David Simon: ‘There are now two Americas. My country is a horror show’ | World news | The Observer.

Neutering the Gospel

Pope Francis

Jon Stewart recently skewered Fox News’ Stuart Varney. Varney disagreed with the pope’s recent critique of capitalism; Stewart’s sharp satire exposes the intellectual and moral vacuity of Varney’s protests against the pope’s comments. (If you haven’t seen it, you can find the link to Jon Stewart here.)

One of Varney’s moves is to attempt to separate the political from the spiritual. He says, “I personally do not want my spiritual life mixed up with my political life. I go to church to save my soul.”

In this context, separating the political from the spiritual is a way to nullify an essential part of Jesus’ teaching and ministry: the building of the Kingdom of God. Jesus was not strictly, nor even primarily, concerned with saving souls: the prayer that he taught his followers is, “… thy Kingdom come, thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven….” The Lord’s prayer expresses the desire that the world be put in order, and that that order be under the authority of the God who is always on the side of the widow and the orphan; on the side of the outcast and the poor.

Those who claim that the political and the spiritual do not meet may be, in fact, followers of one of the world’s great religions– but it isn’t Christianity.

There are good reasons why we have “the separation of church and state,” but Varney is not supporting the continued prohibition of state-sponsored churches. What he is supporting– and anyone else who dismisses the political dimension of religious conviction is also supporting–  is the tight-banded neutering of the gospel. It’s a convenient way to avoid the claims that God makes on our communal life together– of which the political is part– and thereby to avoid questions of conscience.

via AOL Mail – Message View.

A Voegelin Tidbit– Disoriented Human Beings

Eric Voegelin

I’m always on the lookout for original thinking on the larger patterns of history, as a way to get a reading on where we are, and as a way to tell what time it is. Voegelin satisfies.

Here is a brief summary of one note I jotted while listening to an early-1970s recording of Voegelin himself, speaking on the meaning of history:

He says that history moves in three steps. First there is an era of order, which then invariably disintegrates, leading to (and this is the part I love) the “disordered construction of reality by disoriented human beings.” It’s as though the periods of disintegration create societies that suffer from a kind of collective post-traumatic stress disorder, preventing them from returning to a (new) state of order. Voegelin’s metaphor for such a troubled society is the metaphor of “dis-orientation,” of aimlessness. To this apt metaphor he adds the insight that lost human beings construct realities that are distorted and disordered. We do this as a way to soothe, or to mask, or perhaps even as a futile attempt to annihilate, this nagging sense of lostness.

We 21st-century Americans are disoriented, and have constructed a disordered reality. That’s not to say that everything is going to hell in a handbasket tomorrow. It just means that general distrust– of others and of institutions– is growing; that our fetish for seeking security through state-sponsored violence and through unrestrained acquisitiveness is eroding our humanity; and that, despite historically unprecedented widespread material abundance, we rank strangely high in measures of unhappiness, like suicide rates and addictions.

In order to be healthy today, people must, to some degree, resist some (not all) of the attractions of the distorted reality in which we live and move.

.: The Eric Voegelin Institute :..