The Personalist Project

To add my tribute to Katie's below, and because a Facebook friend reminded me of it, I just reread Martin Luther King’s great Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Unlike his Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, this is not an essay in which MLK sets forth his ideas. It is rather a direct and personal response to criticisms made by his “Fellow Clergymen.” It gives us a glimpse into the peculiar sufferings he endured at the hands of sincere, well meaning people that were, or should have been, on his side but who kept on urging more patience, caution, and delay in the fight for civil rights. In some ways, such people were a worse trial for him than the most outright enemies of his cause and person. 

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. 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”… 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.

In another passage, MLK describes how cowardly inaction is covered up by unreal religious reasoning or justified by unclean theologizing:

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I think we do well today to think on these experiences of MLK, and of his admirable response to them, and to examine our own situation and conduct in that light.

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Comments (2)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jan 20, 2015 9:31am

Jules, these quotes are reminding me of something in the memoirs of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, My Grandfather's Son, which I've just finished reading.

He grew up in the Jim Crow south, attending Catholic schools, where the nuns taught him that "all men are created equal." A pious boy, he decided to become a priest and entered Immaculate Conception Seminary in Missouri in the late 1960s. 

He loved it at first. But it was the era of the civil rights movement, and the Church was oddly uninvolved. Of his conversations with one of the few other black seminarians, he says:

In those days, the Church had little to say about racism, which disturbed us greatly...the more we talked, the less sure I grew of my vocation. It seemed self-evident to both of us that the treatment of blacks in America cried out for the unequivocal condemnation of a righteous institution that proclaimed the inherent equality of all men. Yet the Church remained silent, and its silence haunted me. I have often thought that my life might well have followed a different path had the Church been as adamant about ending racism then as it is about ending abortion now.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jan 20, 2015 9:34am

Of course many in the pro-life movement wish the Church were a lot more forceful there too.

But the point remains. A slack response to grave injustice is behind the demoralization and loss of faith for countless souls.

And those are the exactly the souls whose vision and passion is most crucial to the fight against injustice.

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