It doesn’t feel good to be called out. In fact, it can be downright offensive. But for those who have the humility – as well as the courage – to examine their hearts, it can be transformative. I know. It has been for me.
This post must begin with a confession.
I’ve always been familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I’ve read about him, as was required in various history or speech classes. I’ve seen clips of various speeches of his, most notably his “I Have a Dream” speech, and heard other sermons as well. I read, I saw and I listened, but I never saw myself as part of the problem. To me, Dr. King was a christian leader in the civil rights movement, and although I knew that racism still exists today, I didn’t see myself very “near” to the problem.
That is, until last week.
Last week I happened to reread the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written by Dr. King in August of 1963. Before last week I had skimmed the letter before and even read excerpts from it while at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis last year. This time when I read it, it was different. This time, I realized the letter was written to ministry leaders like me.
Long story short, the letter was a response Dr. King wrote to eight white religious leaders in the South. They had issued a public statement voicing their concern and caution that Dr. King and others were trying to move too fast for freedom and equality, and should instead slow down and recognize that change would eventually come. Even in his “Dream” speech, Dr. King would refer to this type of thinking as, “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
Dr. King’s letter is a gracious response, filled with humility. He is direct, emphatic, yet emphasizes the peaceful nature of the movement. He cites various scripture verses, gives examples from history, quotes other leaders, and shares examples that he has personally witnessed. Reading the letter was a lesson for me of godly leadership being played out in written words.
There were two points he made in the letter that stopped me in my tracks. He says:
I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor 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 can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until 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.”
A few paragraphs later he adds…
Let me rush on to mention my other disappointment. I have been disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand this past Sunday in welcoming Negroes to your Baptist Church worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Springhill College several years ago. But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say that as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say it as a minister of the gospel who loves the church, who was nurtured in its bosom, who has been sustained by its Spiritual blessings, and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen. I had the strange feeling when I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery several years ago that we would have the support of the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, some few have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.
His words hit me square between the eyes and forced me to some prayerful introspection. Was I the kind of man that sees injustice and actually does something about it, or do I merely notice it but make excuses for my inactivity?
As ministry leaders, we need to be sensitive to the Spirit’s prompting, and then make sure we follow when He leads.
What is it that you see that God might be prompting you to do something about?