Bleak Theology, Canon, Theologians

The Disappointment of Martin Luther King

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Today, the day we honor Martin Luther King, Jr., we will reflect upon the past year of tumult and tragedy, and the legacy upon which that is built: racial oppression and discrimination. And many people will raise up and herald and praise and listen to the famous and canonical “I have a dream” speech. But before that speech, that sermon to the American people, there was a quieter epistle. An epistle written to Christian clergy from a Birmingham, Alabama jail. On MLK Day, I always read this letter, this Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Carefully. It’s not like his famous speech. It’s not a sermon. It’s not to the listeners on the Washington Mall or the pews of the living room where the radio and television serve as altar in a post-war America. No, this letter is to the insider of the Church, the pastor, the priest, those in authority and with power and privilege. And it is an indictment of the moderate position, of being lukewarm and ineffective. It is a bleak letter, indeed.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

In spite of his shattered dreams. But again – AGAIN – he is disappointed. (And yet he will preach that he has a dream. And soon after that, he will be assassinated. And what then? Who will carry on this dream?)

In this letter, King quotes Augustine and Aquinas, Buber and Tillich. He is not writing to the parishioner, but to the academic, to the trained, to the one who knows better and acts worse. He is writing to me. From a southern prison, he is writing to me.

And so I must read this letter every year and treat it was canon. To remember what this is about. That it is not a lofty, spiritual matter, but one of real work and existential crisis of and within our nation and species.

In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

Nonconformists. White American Christianity loves to think of itself as “nonconformist,” when it is one of the most hegemonic powers and institutions at play to keep the poor and non-White and queer and non-manly as ineffectual and disenfranchised to keep itself in power to call itself “good.” Until the White Church understands its self-deception, its Sartrean bad faith, Kierkegaardian infinite resignation, and Bonhoefferian cheap grace, it will learn nothing. The White Church is lying to itself. It lies. It lies the lie of moderation. King saw that lie:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

#Blacklivesmatter. Our moderation is our collective, social sin. If you call yourself a radical, a nonconformist, then #Blacklivesmatter. We are a disappointment. But King is not hopeless:

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.

I hope for this hope. Because all I know is disappointment and lamentation and shame.

King ends with words of hope and encouragement:

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

I hope for such hope. I shall not do nothing. I will do the work that I can. I seek to be an ally in the cause. I will hoist my unhappy flag and mourn and scowl. And continue to work, though it seems like a Sisyphusian rock that slips from my fingers, for racial justice as I can.

Read King’s letter. All of us. Be kind to one another. Work for justice, even if we never see its fruits within the span of our lives.

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