I must admit that MLK is one of those critical figures in American history that I should know much more about, but haven’t taken the time to do so. However, I think I can safely say that about each of us regarding the Reverend Doctor King. Here is a man for whom we have a comprehensive, modern record. He is a man of the twentieth century, with so much footage and data collected and interpreted and reproduced, we can barely handle it.
And we still can barely handle it. A mark of a prophet is speaking truth to power about current circumstances and what the future can entail if things change and if they don’t. The United States has not had a prophet of such magnitude since King. He was an outsider, as prophets often are, who came in at a critical time of American history and actively became part of American history to affect the world.
Last year, I observed the holiday by reading King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, for which there is no audio or video recording, crowds, or fanfare. If anything, it’s full of silence – what MLK lamented and denounced. It is the silence of moderation and tolerance. It is the silence and isolation from within a jail cell. It is far from the booming speech he will give five years later at the Lincoln Memorial. And I read this letter again this morning.
And to read this letter forty-eight years later after it was written leaves me in silence. His words are a prophetic indictment of what occurred then, now, and the future. Much has been accomplished, but there is much more still to do.
MLK writes at a time of crisis – worse then than now, but only because of what he achieved. The letter is written in a time of bleakness. And the author is full of bleakness. His readers are the cause of his bleakness. He appeals to Scripture, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Niebuhr, Buber, and Tillich – some of the greatest theologians of Western history – to prove his point. But these theologians fall on deaf ears. And they fall on deaf ears today, probably more than ever before.
“The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation,” he writes. Circumstances are so bleak, that it requires a moment of absolute crisis, a word that comes from the Greek krisis, meaning “decision.” He is forcing the tipping point because moderation and tolerance is intolerable.
After reading this letter, what will our decision be? Will we choose to embrace and to share in King’s bleakness to force crisis and change not only in our surroundings, but in ourselves as well?