Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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A Lesson from Birmingham Jail
In January, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned a letter to his co-conspirators reflecting on ten years of resistance. Anguished by his decision to abandon or suspend his pacifist convictions in order to help murder Hitler, save Germany from ongoing war and the Jews from the Final Solution, Bonhoeffer found justification for his actions in an ethic based not in abstract principle but the urgent demands of concrete historical circumstance:
The ultimately responsible question is not how I extricate myself heroically from a situation but how a coming generation is to go on living. Only from such a historically responsible question will fruitful solutions arise, however humiliating they may be for the moment. In short, it is much easier to see a situation through on the basis of principle than in concrete responsibility, (“After Ten Years, 1943).
Faith demands risk, Bonhoeffer believed, including risking one’s life. But faith also means a willingness to risk one’s most cherished principles and norms of behavior when it is a gamble made for the sake of the future generation.
Fifty years ago this week church leaders in Birmingham, Alabama faced a similar decision. Birmingham was the epicenter of the Civil Rights movement in the spring of 1963. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference had arrived in force in March to join a campaign against segregated public accommodations led by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Their hope was to provoke the brutal segregationist Bull Connor, commissioner of public safety to react in a way that would place a spotlight on the struggle and win support from around the country. After several weeks of relative restraint by Connor and the authorities, Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived in Birmingham where, on Good Friday, April 12 he and Ralph Abernathy were arrested, roughly tossed into a paddy wagon, and delivered to solitary confinement.
That same day eight prominent moderate white clergyman published “A Call to Unity” in The Birmingham News, a sharp critique of the demonstrations as a provocative incitement to violence and unhelpful to efforts underway by key civic leaders to negotiate a settlement. Believing that patience and deliberation would ultimately restore calm to Birmingham, the clergy urged “our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham.” They went on to say that “when rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.” Perhaps most galling of all to Dr. King, they commended local law enforcement officials “on the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled,” while saying nothing of the peaceful endurance of the protesters.
King’s response to the religious moderates was the now famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written on April 16, which has taken a prominent place among the foundational documents of the American experience. His eloquent critique of what for many of the privileged is a holy grail of moderation lays open the deep flaws of respectable religion that embraces gradualism in the face of oppression and counsels patience in the midst of injustice.
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 the way things are.
The eight white clergymen were hardly determined segregationists. Nor were they timid. They had spoken out against Governor Wallace’s refusal to abide by the court’s decision to desegregate the University of Alabama. Earl Stallings of First Baptist Church had welcomed African Americans to his worship service, paying a steep price for his actions, a fact noted by King in his “Letter.” These were not evil men, and if we’re honest, many of us must recognize ourselves in what must have seemed to many a careful, responsible, and reasoned approach:
We agree with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.
Only in retrospect and under the dissecting hand of King’s brilliant critique does “A Call for Unity” reveal the fatal weakness and moral vacuity of its argument.
If “Letter from Birmingham Jail” should be required reading for every American, “A Call for Unity” ought to be required reading for every future religious leader, a cautionary tale of what happens when we trade evangelical courage for respectable religion, when the voices of the reasoned members among the privileged classes drown out the cries of the victims and the oppressed, when we avoid the streets in order to secure invitations to the board rooms, and when the cherished principles and culturally accepted modes of action of today carry more weight than asking how future generations will live. The humiliation that would surely have been heaped on them by Birmingham’s white establishment for standing with King and embracing the demonstrators would have been far easier to endure, I suspect, than the humiliation of being forever remembered as the chastened recipients of King’s now celebrated “Letter.”
John H. Thomas
April 11, 2013