The Continuing Relevance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

On this day celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., I want to remind us of one of the most significant writings by Martin Luther King, Jr., his letter from a Birmingham jail. Written after King’s arrest, along with 50 others, on April 12, 1963, as part of the Birmingham Campaign to shine a spotlight on the racist treatment suffered by African Americans in one of the most segregated cities in America. Letter from a Birmingham jail is a direct response to criticism that King and the protestors received from religious leaders through an open letter in a local newspaper.

While there is much that could be said about MLK as a leader, orator, pastor, and husband, I want to encourage us to read or listen to the letter (roughly an hour long as read by King). The issues he addresses continue to be important for our day and time as we wrestle with how our faith relates to the public sphere, just and unjust laws, consideration of how our Christian faith moves us to action or to wait, and what it means to lives as kingdom citizens while seeking to “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24).

Here are a striking excerpt from the letter:

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.

You may also want to explore more of King’s writings, sermons, and speeches through the compilation work A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2003).

The Weekend Wanderer: 22 August 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


Last week I took a break from “The Weekend Wanderer” as I spent a few days away with my family in northern Wisconsin. I never checked my email once and never went online throughout that time away, which was one of the greatest head-clearing moments I’ve had all summer. I hope you can make space to do that sometime as well. You will not regret it, even if you never leave your home. Of course, the moment I returned and opened my email the floods returned, but there was still value in getting to dry ground for short while to remember what life can be like.


renee-fisher-N7oCVnnhgCA-unsplash“A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory” – Tim Keller has put together a pretty striking series of articles featured in Gospel in Life, Redeemer Churches & Ministries’ Quarterly Newsletter. The series features two earlier articles, “The Bible and Race” and “The Sin of Racism,” and promises one further article on “Justice in the Bible.” This third in the series explores the wide ranging conceptions of justice in the broader culture, offering biblical responses to each coupled with some further attention to the hot topic of critical theory as part of a discussion. The entire series is well worth the read.


7_9076_HARPERS_0920_p063_02“Nonconforming” – Here’s Laurent Dubreuil in Harper’s Magazine about the challenges and inanities of identity politics: “Whereas identity politics, as theorized four decades ago, aimed to liberate the oppressed and to oppose American capitalism, its main form today is more invested in changing the direction of domination and in multiplying restrictions. It is the social order of the day, its rhetoric ubiquitous in the neurotic centers of the American economy (universities, the media, the tech sector). Under this regime, identities, once affirmed, are indisputable. If I say, ‘As an x, I think. . . ,’ I am no longer voicing an opinion that can be evaluated or critiqued within a shared space of discourse; I am merely saying what I am. If you disagree with me, you may trace everything I say back to my identity before availing yourself of corresponding counterarguments: you say a because you are an x, but I am a y and I therefore believe in b. Such identities, I insist, are not emancipatory, neither at the psychological nor at the political level. We all should have the right to evade identification, individually and collectively.”


love politics church“20 Quotes on Loving Church Members with Different Politics” – Matt Smethurst shares 20 quotes from Jonathan Leeman and Andy Naselli’s new booklet, How Can I Love Church Members with Different Politics? (Crossway, 2020). Here’s one example to get you thinking: “The gospel does not automatically resolve all our wisdom-based political judgments in the here and now. It helps us love and forbear with one another amid those different wisdom-based judgments. It creates unity amid diversity, not uniformity.”


800“Christian groups unveil new criminal justice reform push” – From the Associated Press: “A coalition of Christian groups including the Church of God in Christ and the National Association of Evangelicals is launching a new criminal justice reform push that seeks to rally believers behind policing changes grounded in biblical principles. Set to be announced Wednesday, the Prayer & Action Justice Initiative has its roots in a campaign started in the aftermath of the coronavirus to help save small churches at risk of closing, with top contributors to that work now channeling their energy toward the criminal justice project. It is expected to include prayer gatherings, nonviolent protests and policy advocacy — all aimed at advancing the cause of racial equity in the justice system.”


Hagia Sofia mosque“The end of secularism is nigh: The West’s ability to market this culturally conditioned assumption is dying – Here comes Tom Holland to alert us to what we should already know about the declining influence of secularism around the world. Holland highlights how this is seen in recent startling changes taken by Prime Minister Modi in India and President Erdogan in Turkey. This “should serve as a wake-up call to the West that it is not only its financial, economic and military muscle that is currently atrophying. So too is its ability to market its culturally conditioned assumptions as universal.”


Rick Love“He Loved Muslims Because He Loved Jesus. The Bible Showed Him How.” – Joseph Cummings remembers Rick Love, former international director of Frontiers and founder of Peace Catalyst, who passed away on December 29 after complications of cancer: “Rick Love loved Jesus above all else. He loved the Bible as God’s Word. Rick’s love for Jesus led him to love Muslims. But his love for Scripture eventually changed his mind about how to love Muslims.”


Music: Sigur Rós, “Glósóli,” from Takk

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 20 June 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


black anger“What the Bible Has to Say About Black Anger” – Here is Esau McCaulley in The New York Times connecting the psalms and the Cross of Christ with this present moment: “For Christians, rage (Psalm 137) must eventually give way to hope (Isaiah 49). And we find the spiritual resources to make this transition at the cross. Jesus could have called down the psalms of rage upon his enemies and shouted a final word of defiance before he breathed his last. Instead he called for forgiveness: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,’ he says in Luke 23.”


N T Wright“Undermining Racism: Reflections on the ‘black lives matter’ crisis” – Here is a reflection by N. T. Wright on the current crisis of racial justice. The basic summary from Tom: “The churches are in the wrong, not because they haven’t obeyed the politically correct agenda, but because they haven’t obeyed their own foundation charter.” I encourage you to dig into this insightful take from one of the best New Testament scholars and biblical theologians of our day.


Robert Larry“These Are My Reactions” – A couple weeks ago, a friend and former ministry resident at Eastbrook Church, Robert Larry, shared some of his thoughts with me on what it’s like to be a black man and Christian at this time in our nation. After sharing those thoughts with me, I asked him if he would be willing to share it with a broader audience, which he agreed to do. After yesterday’s celebration of Juneteenth, I hope Robert’s words inspire us to think, listen to one another, and grow toward greater authentic unity as the body of Christ.


alan jacobs“On Misunderstanding Critical Theory” – One of the more heated debates within the recent conversations about racial justice, LGBTQ+ equality, and much more relates to the domain of what is known as critical theory. Some will utilize critical theory to question some of the basic elements of societal structures, while others will criticize the use of critical theory as self-undermining and antithetical to rationality. Alan Jacobs, author of numerous books including the pertinent How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (which I highly recommend), has helpfully written about critical theory on his blog over the past month. I’d encourage you to take a read of these posts, which I found insightful:


Andrew Sullivan - debate“Is There Still Room for Debate?” – Andrew Sullivan enters into the difficult, if not disappearing ground, of public conversation over contentious issues. In past days, I have increasingly wondered if it is possible to have conversation and debates over difficult issues. It is something I have been considering deeply since reading Jacobs’ book How to Think (see above), as well as Christopher Smith’s book How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church. I ask myself both in regards to society and the church, “Do we even know how to talk anymore?” Sullivan makes an interesting attempt at addressing this flashpoint issue amidst flashpoint issues.


Supreme Court“Supreme Court rules that federal law protects LGBTQ persons from employment discrimination” – There has been a lot of attention to the recent Supreme Court ruling related to employment discrimination against individuals within the LGBTQ community. Here is a quick summary from RNS on the case and ruling. You may also want to read Russell Moore’s take, “After the Bostock Supreme Court Case,” and Daniel Bennett’s take, “LGBT Rights Ruling Isn’t the Beginning of the End for Religious Liberty.”


Screen Shot 2020-06-19 at 6.57.24 AM“Middle East Christians Grapple with Apocalyptic Pandemic” – From Christianity Today: “Imad Shehadeh sensed an apocalyptic felt need. As chatter increased in the Arab world over the soaring coronavirus death tallies in China and Iran, the president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary (JETS) in Amman began preaching on eschatology in lockdown. ‘The coronavirus could qualify as one of the calamities that point to the end times, but could also just be a passing plague,’ he said in a widely shared video series posted in March.”


Music: Wilco, “Love Is Everywhere,” from Ode to Joy

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 13 June 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


Dr. Tony Evans“Dr. Tony Evans Speaks From His Heart About Social Injustice” – One of the most respected African-American voices in evangelicalism is Dr. Tony Evans. His preaching and teaching ministry has blessed thousands over the years. I would encourage you to take fifteen minutes to watch this important word from Dr. Evans as he talks about four area of the cultural pandemic that we need to step forward into as Christians today. He touches upon a wide range of topics, including prayer, protest, individual responsibility, systemic racism, working for the gospel, working for kingdom transformation, and so much more.


Charlie Dates“I Can’t Breathe” – If you’re not familiar with Charlie Dates, the Senior Pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, IL, I encourage you to get to know him. Dates holds a PhD in Historical Theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is a widely-respected speaker on various topics. The Center for Pastor Theologians shared a powerful sermon he preached at Progressive Baptist on May 31 entitled “I Can’t Breathe.”


Tisby familial grief“The Familial Language of Black Grief” – Jemar Tisby’s book The Color of Compromise is one of my must-read books on racial justice in America. I had the chance to hear Tisby speak last Fall on his book and related topics at Wheaton College, which I’ve posted about elsewhere. He writes “Notions of family saturate the black freedom struggle in all of its aspects, especially the threat of police brutality. Under the constant surveillance, suspicion, and violence of law enforcement in America, black people share a kinship of calamity. A brotherhood and sisterhood of suffering. Like any family, it is not something we choose. This sense of solidarity through hardship is forced on us by the oppression we endure.”


Tom Holland - Dominion“A non-Christian’s argument for Christianity’s positive influence” – “Tom Holland has a grand thesis. He explores it with energy, ad­vances it with panache, and pulls it off with a flourish. His lively and absorbing project is at once a serviceable church history, a studied engagement with Christianity’s finest and darkest hours, and a compelling argument. The argument goes as follows: Chris­tianity brought something new and unique into the world; that quality in its various manifestations—notably deep respect for the weak, the suffering, and the vulnerable and a sense of the validity of every human life—remains deeply imbued in Western culture; and it is expressed as powerfully today by those who claim to have rejected Christian truth claims as by Christians themselves.”


Lawrence Aker III - preaching on race“Preaching on Race: Why We Can’t Wait” – In early May I was able to participate in a seminar with Preaching Today called “Pivoting Your Summer Preaching Series”
With Lawrence Aker III and Matt Woodley. I was so thankful to read this article from Lawrence on the necessity of preaching on race. I would add that we should not only preach on race in this moment, but throughout our ministry and in many seasons of the life of the church.


landing-faithful-justice“Resources for Faithful Justice” – InterVarsity Press is offering a number of amazing resources for free right now on their website. Please take a look at and take advantage of this unique offer. “IVP is grateful for the prophetic voices of our authors who share their stories, educate us when we are uninformed, and challenge us with the truth. Learn from these books as we pursue justice, wholeness, and racial righteousness in our homes, churches, and communities. You can also read our commitment to amplifying voices of color. To start reading right away, you can choose one ebook from this page to download for free. IVP will continue to pay the full royalties to the authors of these important books.”


Tim Keller“Tim Keller Asks for Prayers for Pancreatic Cancer” – “Tim Keller asked followers for prayer as he begins chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer. The popular Christian author and pastor announced the news of his diagnosis in an update on Instagram and Twitter Sunday morning. ‘Less than three weeks ago I didn’t know I had cancer,’ wrote Keller. ‘Today I’m headed to the National Cancer Institute at the [National Institutes of Health] for additional testing before beginning chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer next week in New York City.'”


 

Music: Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On,” from What’s Going On

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 6 June 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


Esau McCaulley“A Nation on Fire Needs the Flames of the Spirit” – One of the voices I would encourage you to listen to very closely in this moment is that of Dr. Esau McCaulley, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. Here is a recent sermon he delivered on Pentecost that ties together the fires of the Holy Spirit and the fires of the current protests. You may also enjoy Ed Stetzer’s 4-part interview with him here:


vidar-nordli-mathisen“5 Ways Your Predominantly White Church Can Work for Racial Justice and Reconciliation” – From Pastor Rich Villodas of New Life Fellowship in New York City: “As a pastor of color who leads a very multi-ethnic and multi-cultural church, I often get asked by other pastors and leaders around the country how white, homogeneous churches can embody the gospel’s claim that a new communal identity is possible in a setting not given to reconciliation. I want to suggest that while not every church is going to reflect multi-ethnicity, predominantly white churches in predominantly white neighborhoods can still do their part in connecting the gospel to race.”


Chotiner-FrustrationBehindProtests“Bryan Stevenson on the Frustration Behind the George Floyd Protests” – Some of you may be familiar with the book or movie Just Mercy, featuring the work of Bryan Stevenson, a civil-rights lawyer and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.  Here is an interview with him by Isaac Chotiner helping explain what is going on underneath the protests happening around our cities and nation. He says: “We need to reckon with our history of racial injustice. I think everything we are seeing is a symptom of a larger disease.”


LCMS Black Clergy Caucus“Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod Black Clergy Caucus Statement on George Floyd” – My maternal grandmother always prayed that I would become a minister in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. She would often mention to me as I was in training for ministry, “The Lutheran Church could use some nice young ministers.” Because of that, I’ve always had a fondness for the LCMS which fits quite well with being here in Milwaukee where I currently serve in a non-denominational church (sorry, grandmother!). I must confess I did not know there was a black clergy caucus for the LCMS rooted in the south. This statement by that group in relation to the killing of George Floyd captured my attention.


Armenian_woman_kneeling_beside_dead_child_in_field“What Turkey Did to Its Christians” – Gabriel Said Reynolds at Commonweal: “A traveler in Ottoman Turkey in the mid-nineteenth century would have discovered a robust and diverse Christian presence of different denominations and ethnicities, including Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians. There were between 3 and 4 million Christians in what is now Turkey—around 20 percent of the total population. They were spread throughout the area, from Thrace in the northwest to the far-eastern regions of Anatolia beyond Lake Van, where Armenians likely outnumbered Turks. By 1924, through three successive waves of massacre, deportation, abduction, and forced conversion, Christians had been reduced to 2 percent of Turkey, and almost all who remained would depart in the following decades.”


President Trump Bible“American Bible Society leader: Don’t use the Bible as a political ‘prop'” – The Bible has served as an important symbol in many contexts beyond the church from swearing oaths in court to public readings of Scripture at ceremonies. This is because the Bible holds words that are powerful for our souls and meaningful in the public consciousness. This last week President Trump received a lot of attention for using the Bible in a photo shoot at St. John’s Church near the White House. Here are a few other reactions at various points along the opinion spectrum from evangelist Franklin Graham,  presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church Michael Curry, and Kate Shellnutt’s reporting on the range of Christian responses to the event. Regardless of your opinion, this is probably the top news story featuring the Bible in the past week, and also raises significant questions about the interface of faith and the public square.


family“Facing A Crisis Of Family Formation” – From Yuval Levin, author of The Fractured Republic and A Time to Build: “The idea that the family is an institution at all is hard to deny and yet difficult to comprehend. This is in part because the family occupies a distinct space between two meanings of the term “institution.” It is not an organization exactly, but neither is it quite a practice or a set of rules or norms. In a sense, the family is a collection of several institutions understood in this latter way—like the institution of marriage and the institution of parenthood. The family arranges these institutions into a coherent and durable structure that is almost a formal organization. It resists easy categorization because it is primeval. The family has a legal existence, but it is decidedly pre-legal. It has a political significance, but it is pre-political too. It is pre-everything.


Greek Orthodox“Greek Orthodox Church rules yoga is ‘incompatible’ with Christianity” – In other news, here is this from another part of the world. From time to time, I am asked interesting questions as a pastor about what I think about certain issues, popular practices, or cultural phenomena. These issues can be tricky to speak to because of the nuances of applying Scripture to contemporary issues. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong. This one caught my eye as the Greek Orthodox Church reacted to yoga during the pandemic.


 

Music: Common Hymnal (featuring Dee Wilson),Rose Petals,” from Common Hymnal

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]