I am writing this column on Jan. 15, the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. He was my contemporary. I was a supporter of King and a vocal part of the demand for full inclusion of people of color in the life of America. As history was being played out, I did not fully realize the greatness of King and the significance of events of the late ’50s and the early ’60s. As we look back on those events, there are an endless number of reasons his statue stands on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and King’s birthday is a national holiday.
I have read his writings, and his “I Have a Dream” speech is etched on my heart and mind. However, I believe his letter to clergy, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” is his greatest communication piece and one of the great documents of U.S. history.
I marvel at the document because it was written from a jail cell, where King had no access to reference materials. The date of the letter was April 16, 1963. The organized civil rights movement for people of color was several years old. The movement was becoming stronger and the opposition was becoming more entrenched. The letter came from what was stored in King’s maturing mind. He wrote on whatever scraps of paper he could find. It was addressed to “My Dear Fellow Clergymen.”
A group of clergymen had written a letter to King to discourage his coming to Birmingham. They counseled patience and moderation. In the letter King responded by saying that Negroes had waited long enough and that moderation was not useful in righting the wrongs of segregation. King called not for moderation or patience, but for non-violent and peaceful extremism.
The very people who should have been calling for justice in the name of Jesus were betraying the Christian gospel by calling for moderation. King’s letter moves on and expresses his “disappointment with the churches.” King was an ordained Baptist minister, the son and grandson of Baptist ministers. He had been nurtured and educated by churches and their institutions. He loved the churches. He knew church history. He knew that movements to reform society and to deliver society from injustice many times had come from churches and clergy.
Most reviewers of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. see his “I Have a Dream” speech as the high point of his career. I beg to differ. Birmingham and the letter may have been the pinnacle of his career as he confronted not simply society, but Christian churches and clergy in particular. The Letter from Birmingham Jail was published in leading Christian publications and in the nation’s most-read newspapers. His confrontation of moderation was blunt, yet gracious. Segregation and injustice were not his primary targets; rather, he turned his searchlight of truth telling on all those who took refuge in moderation. Clergy, who called for moderation, were his focus. Not many clergy heard, but a large part of the nation took note. Many believe that it was the Letter from Birmingham Jail that pushed President John F. Kennedy to initiate civil rights legislation.
Moderation is the great disease of Christian churches. The vast majority of Christian clergy are hiding behind the mission of saving souls while ignoring the social teachings of the one they claim to serve as their Lord. They play the game of social justice with great moderation.
I have been involved in the struggle for full acceptance of people who are gay for more than 40 years. I have taken my lumps because of my outspoken insistence that gay people be fully accepted in the life of our churches and in U.S. society. I have been shunned, had employment disrupted and was disfellowshipped — not because I am gay, but for speaking out about injustice. Full acceptance of gay people in the U.S. has made great progress, but we have a long way to go. Kind, loving, peaceful extremists are in short supply in our nation and especially in our Christian churches.
In the Jan. 13, 2014, edition of Sports Illustrated, columnist Phil Taylor took on the National Football League for its tolerance of homophobia in the league. He uses the case of punter Chris Kluwe, formerly of the Minnesota Vikings. No one is suggesting that Kluwe is gay. He is, however, a vocal advocate of gay marriage and full rights for LGBT persons. His coach counseled him toward moderation. Even though he was identified as one of the league’s best punters, Kluwe is now unemployable. Taylor’s column makes the case that the National Football League is homophobic from headquarters to owners, to coaches, to the locker room. Gay players (there are believed to be many) in the NFL will remain tightly closeted.
Justice was a centerpiece of Jesus’ life’s work. As Americans we confess that justice is for all, even in the NFL. Moderates will never make the dream of justice for all a reality. The path to hell is not paved with good intentions. The road to hell is paved with moderation.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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