Monday, January 17, 2011

My Martin Luther King Day annual ritual

Happy Martin Luther King Jr Day, everybody!

I have made it an annual ritual to read Martin Luther King's 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' as my MLK day celebration. It is not only to remember the courage of the man, and to be inspired by the power and force of the letter. It is also to commemorate the personal impact that the letter had on me, 5 years ago, when I read a small portion of the letter to our small-group Bible study. The reaction of my fellow Christians to that letter, and my contemplation of the rest of the letter and on the life of Martin Luther King Jr, was the initial calalyst of my doubting of the Faith, and which ultimately led to my abandonment of that Faith altogether.

I encourage everybody to read Letter from Birmingham Jail, and remember the conditions that a large percentage of our population lived under just a few decades ago, to be optimistic about the progress we have made, and vigilant about the work still to be done in the struggle for human rights.

You may find the full text of The Letter from Birmingham Jail HERE.

In the meantime, I want to re-post two blog articles that I wrote back in March 2007, in which I wrote a short book review on a biography I had read on the life of MLK, and also the impact that the Letter from Birmingham Jail had on my small-group Bible Study and on my Christian life. Here they are, back to back:

Let the Trumpet Sound
The Life of Martin Luther King Jr
. by Stephen B. Oates

This is one of the books that started my doubting slide. This is a major catalyst for my current trend away from my beliefs. I have always had questions and doubts, but this book forced me to confront those doubts head-on, to take them from under the rug, and re-evaluate my beliefs in Christianity.

Last year, I was convicted by my ignorance of the world around me. I am educated, yet I knew next to nothing about the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. So I picked up this 500 page biography of Martin Luther King, published in 1982. I was immediately struck by the very recent history of this country, the history we have all heard a little about, but I think may not have studied in much detail. Black Americans were treated like animals in the Southern US as recently as the 1960s, and this book makes that point clear. King was a brilliant young minister from Atlanta who held his first pastoral duties in Birmingham, Alabama. Holding a PhD in systematic theology, King was highly academic, and initially approached his sermons in an intellectual manner. But Birmingham was the in the heart of racism and segregation. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, Birmingham erupted into violence and protest. King really struggled to keep is church and ideology focused on Jesus, heaven, salvation of souls and the afterlife. But he was forced to concede that a church which does no good for humanity while on earth is not a church at all. He went full throttle into social activism and civil rights and never looked back. The book, and King's life and activism is too full to summarize beyond this point. Pick it up at the library, and read it for yourself.

Bottom line - this book is excellent. I recommend it to anyone who values history and our relationship with our fellow humans. If I have one criticism, it is that the book nearly deifies King, and glosses over his very real failings, such as infidelity to his wife. That is a small complaint though. Read it.

But the real question is, what is this book review doing on a site which questions the claims of Christianity? What are the spiritual applications? Like I said, this book is one of the catalysts for my move away from Christianity. I will write about that in my next article – so stay tooooned.

Let the Trumpet Sound
The Life of Martin Luther King Jr.,
by Stephen B. Oates

This is part 2 of my review of this outstanding book. If you have not yet done so, head on out to the library and check this thing out. It is on my top 10 list from last year.

Now, here is how it affected me spiritually.

Last year I was content with my Christian beliefs, and holding small group Bible studies in my home. I had (and still have) good friends who attended. We shared life experiences together, talked and prayed about showing Christian love to the world, then .. talked and prayed about it some more. I went to a Baptist church which focused its energies on strengthening families and relationships, which is great. But I was a little unsettled. It all seemed too secure and comfortable. Rallying our small group to go give aid to the elderly, or visit the retirement home (one of my favorite things to do) became a real chore. We would plan, organize and plan and plan until we had planned things to death, and never do much of anything. And I am not trashing my friends, because I was just as guilty of apathy as anyone in our group. I had the best of intentions, but in the end it cost too much time. Time is a precious resource. Giving money is relatively easy – but time is very difficult.

Reading about MLK was seriously convicting to my Christian faith on that basis. This was a man who gave up everything for what he believed, even to the point of neglecting his family (which I could never do – nor intend to do). My brand of Christianity seemed tepid and too easy. King, and many others gave their lives to make the world aware of the injustices of the world, and to protest for change. King was a huge admirer and follower of Mahatma Gandhi, who lived as Christlike a life as anyone who ever walked the face of the earth. But how is Christ working in my life to make the world better? No, I don’t mean to be another MLK, that is just silly. Just doing my share to help the desparately poor who live just across the border from me, to help the handicapped children ministry, or visit the elderly and sick? Is the Holy Spirit really empowering me or any of my other Christian friends with the Fruit of the Spirit any more than my good and respectable, but non-believing nieghbors?

In 1963, MLK was arrested (again) for peacefully protesting segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. While he was in jail, eight white pastors from around the state wrote the local newspaper, and editorialized against King’s activism. They figured he should be a good preacher, stay behind the pulpit, and keep his nose out of trouble. In response, King wrote what came to be known as Letter from Birmingham Jail on scaps of paper, and smuggled out by his lawyer bit by bit while he was in solitary confinement. This section from Letter from Birmingham Jail will stay with me always:

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"' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender 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.

Wow. An irrelevant social club. That hurt. I read this powerful letter as though it were written directly to my Baptist Church, to my friends and to myself. It really hurt. I even brought it to my small group and read the above passage to my friends before Bible Study. I wanted to motivate them into some kind of conviction of our condition, but it was met by my Spirit Empowered friends with general apathy. So we fell into our routine, and read a couple of verses from the end of James about loving and praying for the sick among us.

After that, I could no longer go back to my old Baptist church. I viewed my brand of Christianity to be empty, nearly vacuous, and not doing myself nor anyone else much good. The Holy Spirit, I felt, was not empowering me nor anyone else to do anything. I came to realize that if I wanted to do good for my neighbors, I needed to just stop praying, reading Bible passages and being a pious piss-ant and JUST DO IT. Funny thing is, my wife agreed with me without even reading the book. Some of us have natural insights that others do not.

The faith story goes on from there, and it continues to unwind to this day. But that is how this book enters into the story. That is a strange way to begin questioning my own beliefs. But as a loving and charitable old friend of mine once said, “I would love to be a nun, if it were not for all that belief in God that comes with it”.


D'Ma said...

I love this post! This really sums up how I feel perfectly. I haven't read that book nor have I paid much attention to the MLK Jr. fanfair, but I can so relate to wondering if the Holy Spirit is empowering anybody to do anything. What is it Christ said, something about telling the poor or hungry that you'll pray for them but to go and be well. What have we as the Church done to improve society? The Church acts as if it's legalism and rules are on the right path, but somehow I think that falls way short. I think the thing that really made me face my doubts and questions was the fact that I live in a small town, population 17,000 county wide, around 6,000 in the town. My church decided to embark on a 7 million dollar building campaign for a family life center. The majority of the population in my town falls below the poverty line. I just questioned the whole line of thought that we'd spend that much money on a building when we are doing NOTHING in our community to help those less fortunate. What does that say about us? I got disgusted with the whole thing. I think Dr. King was right. The church is beginning or maybe already is nothing more than an irrelevant social club.

Like a Child said...

"An irrelevant social club." Love it. I've really noticed this issue as we moved to the "south" (from the southern most state that is not really the south:), and moved from being a child of an immigrant family to a middle class white-collar family. I haven't been able to join women's bible studies because I don't feel like I fit in anymore (on the inside).

I was similarly convicted, not by MLK (which like you and Dma, I'm not well-versed in), but in Francis Chan's Crazy Love. Chan recently left his mega church to do missions and was criticized by Driscoll et al for his emphasis on the social gospel. Chan had a quote similar to yours, where he advocates to stop praying and start doing. Like you, Chan's book intensified my doubts, as I pondered the question if I would be willing to die for the Gospel. Now a days, I can't pray anyways, so "doing" the Gospel (even if I doubt it) is what I'd like to aim for.