Those of you who were at Compline on Tuesday heard me say that I like to re-read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” every year on Martin Luther King day. It reminds me that I still don’t grasp the depth of his genius. Behind the skilled leadership and incredible oratory—the things that are most talked about on the civic stage—was a breathtaking vision of God’s work in the world formed by a brilliant theological and philosophical mind. Every year I try to imagine the pressure and stress he felt sitting in that jail, and I am absolutely taken to school by the clarity and force of the argument he made in his letter to local clergy who complained about the demonstrations Dr. King was leading.
The local clergy were trying to be Christians and moderates on an issue that frankly won’t accommodate both of those positions. Why, they asked, do you have to do these demonstrations now? Why not wait until a better moment? We support you in principle, they were saying, but this is getting inconvenient. Perhaps they didn’t actually support the movement. Perhaps they were worried about the hit the church budget would take if the wealthy racists took their pledges elsewhere. Such concerns are behind a lot of church silence.
Dr. King responds with a passionate and precise argument against delaying action. He cites an array of theologians and philosophers with ease, but the parts I like best are when his voice becomes the voice of a prophet.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Available online
And, as I read that letter on Monday, a group of gun-rights activists gathered around the Virginia state capitol in Richmond, protesting proposed gun restrictions.
White people. With assault rifles. Outside the building that served as the capitol of the Confederacy. On Martin Luther King day. Y’all, between you and me, I don’t think this was about freedom.
Smash cut to the first line of today’s Gospel. “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” John the Baptist, who had baptised Jesus, was arrested. Mark’s gospel says it was because John criticised Herod for marrying the ex-wife of his own brother, but non-biblical historical sources tell us that he was arrested for being critical of Herod’s brutal economic policies. Either way, John was arrested for speaking truth to power. And power then, as now, dealt in the currency of death. John was soon beheaded.
So Jesus withdrew—a fairer translation might say that he fled—to Capernaum, in Galilee, away from the power center in Jerusalem. Perhaps he was waiting for a more convenient time to begin his ministry.
Martin Luther King was disappointed—and I think he was being polite in choosing that word—in white moderates who agreed that segregation was unjust but did not believe that civil disobedience was justified. He was disappointed in people who could not understand that an unjust law cannot be a law of God’s kingdom. He was disppointed in people who would do theological gymnastics to avoid doing something about injustice. Gymnastics like arguing that the bodily realities of this world do not matter, because the soul is distinct from the body. The church is in the soul business, they said, and so secular racism is not a church concern. Dr. King’s words are far better than mine:
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.Ibid.
I think, when we read the first sentence of today’s Gospel, we expect Jesus to respond as one of Dr. King’s white moderates would. We expect him to retreat and lay low, and to try to get on the good side of the authorities.
But this is a man who is fresh off of 40 days in the desert, clarifying, refining, and intensifying his call to serve people by denying the ultimacy of secular power. Matthew makes sure you have Isaiah’s words in your ears as you see him do this:
“the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
And he begins to proclaim: “Repent,” that is, turn away from the way power works here, from the way of Herod, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He is, then, not waiting, not hiding. In the face of violent imperial oppression, Jesus introduces an alternative vision of power, one rooted in love, and in a justice so deep we can scarcely imagine it.
Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven had drawn near. He went down by the sea, and called two fishermen, Andrew and Peter, to drop their nets and follow him. To repent, that is, to turn away from their comfortable life and to follow him. And they did. He called to James and John—a different John, obviously—and they, too, dropped what they were doing and followed him.
“And Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” The good news came to people, to their souls and to their bodies, in the midst of sinful oppression. The sacred is the secular and the secular is the sacred. That’s the Gospel. That’s how it went. The threats of violence from the capitol did not stop it. Death did not stop it.
And so there will never be a convenient time. There will never be a moment when Jesus does not call us to hear “black lives matter” as an affirmation of basic justice in the gaping maw of systems that by their practices would deny it. There will never be a moment when Jesus calls privileged folks to hear other peoples cry for justice, for decency, and to say, “someday, but not now.” Because each moment of injustice is a real wound on real people, on their bodies and on their souls.
John the Baptist was killed for witnessing against power. So was Jesus. So was Dr. King. Death is the real currency of empire, and empire exacted its price from each of them. It is terrifying. That is the point. But in our rush to canonize these witnesses, we ought not smooth out our portraits of them so much that we lose the texture of their humanity. We cannot forget the fear they felt. We cannot forget the faith that led them beyond the fear. And we cannot forget the very real excruciation they experienced. White violence cannot obscure the black bodies. Nor can white moderation separate bodies from souls to soothe its own squeamishness. We are called, body and soul, to speak the Good News, now. To proclaim it in the face of the imperial logic of death. And that is, to put it gently, inconvenient.
Martin Luther King, Jr. applied for a concealed carry permit in 1956, after his house in Montgomery was bombed. Police did not like to grant such permits to African-Americans. His application was denied. He could not legally holster a weapon under his jacket. All the same, he possessed in his house at that point quite a few firearms. You can understand why. Yet, as he more fully wrestled with, practiced, and embraced the power of non-violence, he would give up his guns.
Dr. King later wrote, “I was much more afraid in Montgomery when I had a gun in my house. When I decided that I couldn’t keep a gun, I came face-to-face with the question of death and I dealt with it. From that point on, I no longer needed a gun nor have I been afraid.”3Clayborne Carson, ed. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King. 1998, Grand Central Publishing, New York. page 82.
May we, with God’s help, be even a fraction as powerful.