Last Monday our post recalled the civil rights campaign in Birmingham, AL in the spring of 1963. The purpose of the campaign was to desegregate public accommodations in perhaps the most resistant city in the nation at that time. Resistance came not only in the forms of police brutality and KKK bombings but also in the form of opposition from white clergy leaders who criticized the non-violent civil disobedience actions that directly challenged the unjust segregation laws. While Martin Luther King, Jr. joined others in jail who were arrested for their non-violent resistance, he responded to the clergy criticism with what has become known as a masterpiece of American and Church history "The Letter From the Birmingham City Jail." The part of the letter I want to highlight today focuses on some of Dr. King's words to the church in his day:
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.
There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. 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. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' ... Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender 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 even vocal--sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Can we read these words and apply them to the church in America in 2018? Are we willing to confess that the church in our society is still mostly seen as a supporter of the status quo even when that status quo perpetuates racial injustice? Are we willing to move from confession to commitment to be non-conformists who challenge injustice in the name and Spirit of Jesus who consistently challenged people to transcend barriers of race, gender, and nationality? The future of the church as faithful followers of Jesus depends on our willingness to say "yes" to both questions with our lips, hearts, and actions.