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.
14 But as for me, God forbid that I should boast about anything except for the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through him, and I have been crucified to the world. 15 Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything. What matters is a new creation. 16 May peace and mercy be on whoever follows this rule and on God’s Israel.
17 From now on, no one should bother me because I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.
“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 Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus."
Loving Lord, even after you rose from the dead, you kept the marks of the cross on your risen, transformed body. Help me, like Paul, to bear those marks in my heart (and on my body if necessary), to show your victory over evil and hate. Amen.
* N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, p. 82.
In his talk at our church last weekend, Dr. Clarence Jones referenced a poem that Rev. Dr. King shared in a sermon about 58 years ago. King brilliantly worked this poem into his sermon that day hoping to stir a sense of calling in young Jones. King had asked him to be his attorney for legal battles he faced in his civil rights work. King was hoping that Jones would see this as an opportunity in serving God, working toward equal rights for all of humanity, and carrying the torch of his parents’ sacrificial work.
Mother to Son, by Langston Hughes
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. *
The mother is passing the torch to the son to continue the climb. After reading this poem a few times, I realized that those of us on the planet right now are the collective son and those that lived before us fill the role of mother.
King accepted his identity as an extremist of love and justice, much like the prophets before him. These extremists shared a vision of building the inclusive loving kingdom of God on earth. Today, we still have a lot of work to do to achieve this vision. Those who have gone before us deserve our dedication to carrying their torch forward. They have climbed the stairs, turned corners, and experienced the darkness. Now it is our turn to wake up, stand up, and speak up in continuing their work.
In my notes from Dr. Jones’ message of what Rev. Dr. King would say to us now, I wrote, “Pay attention, don’t be silent, remember to always tend to the least of these.” This has become a mindful checklist for me as I try to seek God’s calling each day.
Sacrificial love leaves its mark on those it touches. Jesus carried the scars of crucifixion into the resurrection. Paul carried the mark of Jesus into his ministry. Dr. Clarence Jones carries the scars of King’s murder, but doesn’t allow death to have the final word as he resurrects King’s wisdom for us today. The scars on our predecessors represent the pain that teaches us how to resurrect hope.
The torch has been passed to us. In our place of privilege, it is tempting to fall asleep and not fight for the least of these. But, we owe it to people like Jones and King to carry on their work. It was a divine gift to celebrate Easter and be inspired by Dr. Jones in the same week! Both events call us to new life and a new way of living. It is time for us to say yes!
* Source: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Books, 1994)
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