It is not possible to understand who Martin Luther King, Jr. was, nor what he did, without his Christian faith. The son, grandson, and great-grandson of pastors, he was steeped in the African-American church tradition throughout childhood, and built on that foundation by attending the religious vibrant Morehouse College, and then by earning not only a seminary degree but a PhD from Boston University’s School of Theology. Civil rights for Rev. Dr. King, whether he was preaching on a Sunday morning or speaking in the public square, was a faithful expression of the Gospel for real people.
“A Letter from the Birmingham Jail” in particular strongly addresses the church: it is addressed to a group of clergy who are eager for Martin Luther King, Jr. to depart their community with his troublemaking ways, so that they can go back to their carefully settled status quo. Some of those addressed were United Methodist leaders in Alabama who blamed King for being an outsider, for causing violence, for putting nonviolent action ahead of negotiating, for not being patient. King masterfully refutes all these arguments, and lays out the deeply important reasons why there is no time like the present to act for justice across races, according to both “the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God.”
There’s a passage of the letter which still presses and challenges me, as Rev. Dr. King reflects on what it means to be charged (by brothers in the Christian faith!) with being an extremist.
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .”
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
The question inescapably remains, more than 50 years later: “not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremist we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or extremists for love?”
As we continue our worship series this Sunday on baptism and what kind of Christians it makes, I hope you’ll hear the extreme call of Christ just as Rev. Dr. King did — for the world is still in need of “creative extremists.”
Photograph: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Birmingham, Alabama city jail in 1967; he had written his famous letter from the same place four years earlier.