WORDS FROM BIRMINGHAM JAIL
To an acculturated and accommodated church, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote these words. He wrote them to us in Birmingham, from our jail, fifty years ago but the words ring true in the church today, perhaps in the church of any age, so let us reflect upon them again in our own day. Let us prayerfully reexamine our church on the basis of Dr. King’s eloquent rebuke of the church that has stopped being an outpost of the Kingdom of God and a sign of Jesus’ politics and instead has become merely the “sanction of things as they are.”
There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed in. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”. But they went on with the conviction that they were a “colony of heaven,” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought to an end such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter 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 vocal sanction of things as they are.
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), pg. 300.
William H. Willimon
Please pray for our Annual Conference that meets on June 1-2 at ClearBranch United Methodist Church.
4 thoughts on “CHURCH AS THERMOMETER OR THERMOSTAT:”
To me a big difference between King and contemporary politicized expressions of religion is that he struggled for a large vision concerning which there really was no question, in the minds of good and conscientious people everywhere, which side was in the right on civil rights and which in the wrong.Today the church seems to get involved in “hot button issues” a lot of which somehow obsess over all things sexual and reproductive. The things the church fights for are according provincial – things concerning which reasonable people can differ. Not like infanticide or gladiatorial combat or institutionalized racism.Somehow neither the church nor secular minded groups have generated real leadership and passion for the social equivalents of today: for example, the terrible inequalities in health care in the richest nation on earth or the increasing truly serious and impending matter of the state of the earth we’ll be leaving to our children and grandchildren.These are clear matters of right and wrong that ought to generate widespread and not limited or parochial interest. But it’s not happening.I think personally a fundamental problem is how we finance campaigns. Unless you’re rich and have connections to corporations you don’t get to run for higher office in this country. Those elected are beholden to special interests that essentially write their own legislation and people feel and increasinly are quite powerless
Powerful post and thanks for sharing. I am praying for your conference.May God bless your with the power of His Holy Spirit. I also wanted you to know your book about the Lord’s Supper made differnce in my life as well as the life of those in my congregation. I am always praying for you brother and your ministry.Love your blog and will be a daily reader. I will also be prayer warrior for you and your ministry. God bless all the work that you are doing and have done for the Kingdom of God.
I think Dr. King and you are right. The church has lost its’ place in the society and is losing it fast in the world. We need something, a revival, a leader, a few good people, to just stand and say what needs said. Then fight for the truth. TY Bishop for sharing.
Dear Bishop,I’m the woman who greeted you after your lecture in Nashville (“How God Changes People Through Preaching” — answer: “I don’t know!”) as a representative of your Unitarian fan base. I thought you might like to see a blog posting that uses one of your stories from the conference (I would have e-mailed you directly but wasn’t able to find an address, which I’m sure isn’t an accident!):http://www.peacebang.com/2007/05/28/brown-bag-lunch/It concerns the liberal church’s penchant for seeing victims, rather than disciples, in every church and organization.Blessings on you and your ministry.