On April 7-8, Dr. Clarence Jones spoke at our church 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. We built this week’s GPS around Bible examples King cited in his April 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” White Christian and Jewish clergymen had published a critique of non-violent civil rights protests as too impatient and extreme. Click here to read the full text of King’s powerful response.
18 Doom to those who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
19 as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or sought refuge in a house,
rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
20 Isn’t the day of the Lord darkness, not light;
all dark with no brightness in it?
21 I hate, I reject your festivals;
I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
22 If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—
I won’t be pleased;
I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
23 Take away the noise of your songs;
I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
“You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist…. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label…. Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream."
Lord Jesus, what a vision—an ever-flowing stream of righteousness rolling down in a waterfall of justice! Embed that vision in my heart, and make me a channel through whom that stream can flow. Amen.
"You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist….But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label…. Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream."
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1963 after a series of nonviolent protests in Birmingham, eight pastors wrote a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. and had it published in the local newspaper. They accused the marches of being “directed and led in part by outsiders” and thought them to be “unwise and untimely.” They ended their letter by encouraging the “Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations.”
Now, 55 years later, this letter has NOT aged well. Can you imagine being one of the pastors who had the audacity to tell Martin Luther King Jr. to back down?
Thank goodness he didn’t listen.
A few years ago I heard a piece of advice that’s stuck with me ever since. When making a big life decision, imagine for a moment that you’re old and on your death bed—looking back at the present as a memory. Then, observe how you feel. Which decision will you regret and which decision will you be glad you made?
It’s a morbid thought experiment, but one that’s helped me be brave. Because in the moment, bravery is terrifying. But looking back, I’m proud of every time I took a leap of faith in my life. I’ve never regretted being someone who risks to make a difference. And a lot of those decisions, for me, have been a result of this thought experiment. I want to die with as few regrets as possible.
Time has a way of clarifying decisions.
And time has also clarified what was once a controversial stance—to offer equal rights to people of color. We can’t imagine anyone today taking the stance people publicly took in the 1960’s. That’s not political correctness. That’s ethics.
And those pastors were so sure of themselves, that they went down in history as the apathetic leaders who thought Martin Luther King Jr. was too radical.
Want to know who else was killed because people thought he was too radical?
Yep, the answer is Jesus.
Jesus challenged people to change in ways they didn’t want to change. He challenged them to open their minds about people who were different than them. He spoke truth and lived a non-violent life to the end. And people went down in history as the resistors of Jesus Christ.
Which makes me wonder—when another 55 years pass, what “debate” are we having now that will age really poorly? What issues are we fighting about that will be seen in the same light as these pastors?
I, for one, hope I can look my grandchildren in the face some day and tell them I spoke up, stood up, marched, or fought for what was right—even if it’s controversial now.
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