“…. I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some 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.” (emphasis added) Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. 16 April 1963
Martin Luther King wrote these words in response to a public statement by eight white Alabama clergymen who were calling for “unity” and denouncing King’s leadership in direct action, nonviolent protests. These white ministers were generally supportive of desegregation but advocated a slower, more gradual approach to ending oppression and segregation. Their position reflected the “slow down … what’s the hurry?” mentality of many mainline churches of the South.
Then, I was a child, 60 miles from Memphis, in Brownsville, Tennessee. Now, almost six decades after their writing, I am simultaneously grieved and motivated by the persistent accuracy of this description of the white church and its leadership.
As people who claim Christ, who claim salvation in the life and resurrection of Jesus, Christians are called to love God and love neighbors as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39). Jesus named these the greatest commandments, saying “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:40).
Read it again.
“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
According to Jesus, loving God and loving neighbor are the supreme callings of those who seek life through Him.
This calling manifests in many ways. But, we white Christians need to more fully understand that loving God and loving neighbor often require the holy boldness to name injustices when we see them and to act to “bend our privilege toward justice,” a phrase I learned in a class I took with the Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III. Too often, in the face of injustice, we continue to urge caution, advise a gradual approach or remain altogether silent in the comfort of our communities and churches.
Center for Faith and Imagination exists to provide resources and opportunities to help clergy and faith leaders — of all denominations and races — thrive in ministry. We strive to support them so they can live fully and healthfully into their calls to ministry as persons, pastors and prophets.
Through our anti-racism covenant groups and workshops, we provide knowledge, companionship, and the accountability necessary to step up and speak out against injustice. We try to heed the words of Coretta Scott King when she said, “It doesn’t matter how strong your opinions are. If you don’t use your power for positive change, you are, indeed, part of the problem.”
On this MLK holiday, I am grieved and motivated, convicted and inspired by both Coretta and Martin Luther King’s words and examples. Following their lead in following Jesus, while acknowledging my and my white Christian siblings’ caution and shortcomings, I decide, once again, to speak, to seek, to hope and most importantly, to stick with love.
Martha Lyle Ford, Master of Divinity, is a DM in candidate in Land, Food, and Faith Formation and director, Center for Faith and Imagination at Memphis Theological Seminary
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