Among the many people to whom I recommended Ed Gilbreath’s new book this summer were colleagues and students in Bethel University’s Christianity and Western Culture (CWC) course. While that course effectively ends its narrative around 1800 (I go as far as the British parliament abolishing the slave trade in 1807) and we barely touch on U.S. history, the course actually starts and stops with Gilbreath’s subject: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” (This is the long-delayed third and final post in a series on Birmingham Revolution.)
That letter is the first thing students read in their primary source reader, for at least three reasons. First, MLK name-checks all sorts of individuals who will show up later in the course (e.g., Socrates, Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and even the 20th century philosopher Martin Buber) and so provides an example of one especially famous Western Christian being encouraged by the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1, a verse that students hear repeatedly in CWC). Second, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” presents King’s views on justice and law, a theme that we revisit the following week via two 5th century BC sources from famous Athenians: Sophocles (Antigone) and Thucydides (the “Melian Dialogue“). Third, because King both draws on the intellectual and moral traditions of Western culture and fiercely critiques its most deeply entrenched injustices, his letter stands (in my colleague Sara Shady’s words) as “the quintessential piece on a Christian thinking about his relationship to culture.”
So we return to it at semester’s end, when we have students write a 1000-word “synthesizing essay” in which they draw on personal experience, historical examples, and other sources to call Christians to action in response to some value prevailing in their own culture. More often than not, I tell students in my small groups that this assignment should be written as “your own ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.'”
Of course, I don’t expect them to match the wisdom, erudition, or passion of the man who wrote what, for King attorney Clarence Jones, is “one of the greatest pieces of political advocacy and religious writing that I have ever read” (quoted in Birmingham Revolution, p. 103). But I do want my students to emulate King’s thoughtful reflection on how Christians live in and perhaps change their world, and to join him in considering how such contemplation leads to action. And while that letter, in Gilbreath’s words, “marks the synthesis of concepts and philosophies King had been working out for years in speeches, articles and even in his seminary and postgraduate work” (p. 107), much less experienced and mature students can still take inspiration from it, and seek to synthesize what they’ve learned of theology, philosophy, and church history with their own experience and opinion.
But after reading Birmingham Revolution, I think I’m going to drop the comparison. On at least two levels, my advice to write “your own” version of King’s “great epistle to the church” increasingly strikes me as misguided.
First, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” did not spring from nothingness. No abstract intellectual exercise, it was rooted in one man’s personal experience of Jim Crow and the collective experience of a people who had systematically been deprived of justice, equality, and their inherent dignity as human beings. Now, I encourage students to draw on their own experience, and to speak from a place of conviction and passion (whether sorrow or joy, frustration or hope) rather than simply try to regurgitate data in support of whatever argument they think I want to hear, but…
King’s letter was rooted in persecution — and our overwhelmingly white, middle class, suburban, straight students (and that all describes me as well) are largely children of privilege. I fear that setting up such a comparison trivializes the context for King’s writing.
Then there’s the second problem with encouraging Bethel students to write as if they were writing their version of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Not everyone’s a prophet.
Time and again, Gilbreath describes King with that biblical term. In Birmingham Revolution MLK is a man who “bore the prophet’s burden of knowing it was his responsibility to demand a better reality for his people, a better way for all of America” (p. 91), though he’s “known more today as a poetic patron saint of racial harmony than a provocative prophet of social justice, someone who by the end of his life had managed to get on just about everyone’s last nerve” (p. 93). Looking back in his childhood and adolescence, Gilbreath relates that King was, for him, more of “an American folk hero who could give a good speech,” or later “like a dead poet or pioneering inventor.” But on finally reading “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in college, “Suddenly, King became a prophet” (p. 10).
No doubt, if this country has produced a prophet, it’s Martin Luther King, Jr. (See the previous post in this series for more on King’s “prophetic voice” and how it was and is silenced.) But I’m not sure how many other Americans have had that calling.
I know I don’t, as I wrote in my response to the controversy over World Vision temporarily deciding to hire LGBT Christians: “At times, we do need to be startled out of complacency… But even if we need more such voices right now, I’m quite sure that mine isn’t one of them.”
And neither, I would guess, are those of most college students, or any other group. I don’t think the Apostle Paul could make it much clearer: (emphasis mine in each passage quoted)
The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Eph 4:11-13)
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone…. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit… to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. (1 Cor 12:4-6, 8, 10)
If we are faithful to our calling and giftedness, it would seem that only some of us would be prophets. And given how unusual and isolated prophets seem to be in the Old and New Testaments, it’s likely to be a small “some.”
But we inhabit an age in which technological innovation and the other forces that democratize information and expression have made it easy for anyone and everyone to hang their digital shingles as self-anointed oracles. Such “prophets,” I wrote in the World Vision post, “may think they’re speaking truth to power; much more likely, they’re just feeding the confirmation bias of the like-minded.”
(Or: “The social-media missives of today’s Christian leaders are often more snarky than prophetic,” acknowledges Gilbreath, “but they can certainly be useful devices for stoking a like-minded community or tweaking an opponent” — p. 98.)
“Worse,” I continued, “the sheer proliferation of such speech risks silencing actual prophecy…”, since (and here I quoted, and do so again, from Ken Wytsma) “When all we do is speak with ready opinions, sound bites and conclusions, it dampens our ability to hear the truly prophetic voice — the voice that compels us toward justice and truth.”
And that’s a problem. “We must no longer be children,” warns Paul, “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” Instead, we must be the Church, growing together — as we’re each called and gifted — “into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph 4:14, 16).
For the vast majority of us, that means that the call is not to speak as a prophet, but to listen for such voices, to bend our ears to hear what Wytsma calls “the God-given devices for bending society back when it veers from where it should be.”
Most of us aren’t like Jonah, sent out to “cry out against” cities whose “wickedness has come up before [the Lord]” (Jon 1:1-2, NRSV). At our best, we’re more like the people of one such place, Nineveh, who “listened, and trusted God” (Jon 3:5, The Message).
It’s a lesson that should have been heeded by the eight white clergymen whose critique of King’s methods in Birmingham inspired his famous response. To his credit, Gilbreath presents their preference for gradual reform (a preference I likely would have shared, had I been in their shoes at the time) with as much historical empathy as he can, noting that their willingness to stake out even a moderate position carried some risk:
It was no small gesture, then, for a group of white Southern clergymen to raise their voices, even at a moderate level, and occupy the office of public prophet the best way they knew how. (Gilbreath, pp. 84-85)
In other, less charitable words, they shouldn’t have acted as prophets in the first place. They should have been listening — and, as pastors, helping their flocks to listen — for God using his servants to bend Birmingham back to what it should have been.
But as it happened, even when they received the direct testimony of King in the form of a letter written to them, most of the eight did anything but listen. For example, Rabbi Milton Grafman complained that King’s epistle was “beautiful yet vicious,” and the Episcopalian bishop Charles Carpenter dismissed it as “careless criticism.” Only Catholic bishop Joseph Durick was truly transformed by his highly public correspondence with King — and even in his case “The real message in the letter didn’t hit home until later” (said Durick in 1969).
So this year I might ask my students, at the end of the semester, if they’ve heard God speaking through a “voice that compels us toward justice and truth.” A written source they’ve never read, a professor’s lecture, a friend’s question…
And if they — or those with blogs, Twitter accounts, and the willingness to use them — do feel called to speak as prophets, I’d encourage them to consider that King, as Gilbreath does well to remind us, was “First and foremost a man of prayer.” That the author of 1963’s most famous letter wrote from a Birmingham jail where, he said later, “God had been my cellmate.” That he viewed as a turning point in his career a sleepless night in January 1956 when he sat at the kitchen table and prayed a desperate prayer (“Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right, but I have nothing left”) that received a quiet answer from Jesus himself (“…stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world”).
In short, before following Martin Luther King, Jr. into prophecy, follow him into prayer. And listen for God’s voice before daring to speak with it.