Christian Churches Together Symposium on Racism:
A Response to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s
“Letter from Birmingham Jail”
By Earl James, executive coordinator for multiracial initiatives and social justice
The 2013 Christian Churches Together (CCT) symposium, held April 14-15 at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, culminated with the signing of CCT’s response to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and the presentation of the response to the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King and executive director of the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
Fifty years ago, on April 16, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an open letter in response to an open statement to him by eight white Birmingham clergy. He was incarcerated in the local jail at the time. The clergymen described Dr. King and the civil rights activities in Birmingham as unwise, unwarranted, and unwanted. Dr. King responded by writing about:
- the invasive nature of injustice,
- why social tension created through non-violent, direct action is positive and necessary, and
- the value of acting now for justice rather than waiting or continuing to take slow roads.
The CCT response to Dr. King’s letter, believed to be the first such action taken by the church, includes:
- confessions about a historic lack of commitment to or opposition to racial justice,
- commitment to continue the fight for racial justice in multiple ways on multiple levels, and
- acknowledgment that systemic racism must be addressed as part of eliminating racial injustice from American society.
The 2013 CCT symposium was attended by approximately 200 people representing CCT’s five church families (African American, Evangelical/Pentecostal, historic Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic) and other Christian organizations that are CCT members. The Rev. Carlos Malave, executive director of CCT, led the symposium.
In addition to the presentation to Bernice King, highlights of the symposium included:
- words from keynote speakers and responders, including: the Hon. John Lewis, the Rev. Bernice King, Dr. Virgil Wood, Dr. Dorothy Cotton, Dr. Ron Sider, the Rev. Jim Wallis, Lisa Sharon Harper, the Rev. Dr. Stephen J. Thurston, Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, and Bishop Don diXon Williams,
- conversations with panelists, and
- readings of confessions by the co-presidents of the five CCT church families.
A multiracial group of eight people from the RCA participated: Joe Hernandez, John Chen, Kate Davelaar, Leatha Johnson, Maudelin Willock, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, William Roozeboom, and Earl James. Kate Davelaar and Wesley Granberg-Michaelson serve on CCT’s Leadership and Steering Committee.
Afterward the RCA group gathered to discuss their experience of the symposium and its implications going forward. Below are some of their comments.
What are you feeling because of the symposium?
- Encouraged to do something. To put words into action.
- Reenergized for the work.
- Thought about being a graduating seminarian. Thought about the need for prophetic preaching to keep the issue before the people, agitating that the kingdom of God is for all people equally. We don’t do that, preach prophetically enough or agitate enough. I am about to step into a role. How do I make a difference?
- Makes me think of the difference between “neighbor-love” and “hospitality.” The church “gets” hospitality, but not neighbor-love.
- What is diversity? Dr. King started with race and went on to include economics and peace. What else would he include? Makes me feel unsettled that our churches tend to be either unable or unwilling to embrace (or reflect) the increasingly diverse milieu in the 21st century.
- Have we made enough progress since 1963 (when Dr. King wrote the letter)? I feel a little inadequate. John Lewis has served for about 20 terms in Congress. We need many more of him. There is a lot of work to be done. We need to find more advocates and build the next generation of John Lewises.
What struck you about the symposium so far?
- John Lewis’s statement about trouble. He said sometimes you have to make trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. There are times to make good trouble.
- Am I willing to make the sacrifice?
- Jim Wallis was talking about the First Baptist Church in DC and its failure to engage truth. (They reportedly forced their pastor to leave because he wanted to assist the white church to reflect the racial make-up of its neighborhood.) We have to say “’tis is not God’s will.” We have to call it what it is. Beautiful truth telling.
- When Dr. Thurston [CCT co-president for African American denominations] said many in the Black church failed to embrace Dr. King, even opposed him, until after Dr. King died.
- Ron Sider’s question about how to spark or re-ignite passion and commitment [for] social justice. Congressman Lewis replied that a passionate and committed small group had to forge shared values, educate themselves on issues, and develop campaigns from there.
Engaging the next generation
- Listen to them talk about their values and starting points.
- Meaningful engagement on fresh issues. Easy to say teach the younger generation on issues that were alive 50 years ago. We should invite them to engage their issues. Perhaps mass incarceration is one. Continue to pass on the elements of a movement as opposed to the stories of a past movement.
- Still need a strong educational piece. They need older people in their lives. They want to be heard.
- I wish we would stop telling them they can change the world. Recycling a bottle does not save the environment. We should say, “Join Jesus. He is changing the world.”
- Start with people who have an interest.
Next steps (personally, locally, denominationally)
- If you are not the pastor, then nothing will happen. You have to get the pastor.
- If the pastor is not on board, work with him or her to help him or her see the concerns.
- Get a group away for a retreat for focusing, educating, and building enthusiasm.
- Utilize key storytellers.
- Partner with local organizations that are doing it. Get outside the walls. Each church should not be an island.
- Seminaries should ensure a student cannot graduate without taking a class on racism in America.
- Commitment to change reflects God’s intentions for a deep journey for the long term. Your deep inward journey accompanies you as you work at outward change. Listen deeply to God, pray, exposure yourself to important learnings, listen to others. Root commitment in those things.
Statements from RCA participants
From Leatha Johnson
In reading Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement–“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”–and hearing Dr. John Lewis say “Put some feet to your words,” I pray that the Reformed Church in America will continue to jointly develop strategies to confront the issues, and activate movement against the injustices in the church and society. I pray that together we become the spinning force that will break the chains of the “systemic racism” that’s embedded in the minds of this society.
From Kate Davelaar
At worst, CCT’s response to Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail will simply be remembered [as] some words shared at an event–an event that gathered a bit of media buzz, a flurry of tweets, and numerous digital pictures collecting virtual dust. At best, the response will be seen as an invitation to participate in a movement–a movement that propels the church to continue to work for justice, to speak truth to power, and confess its continued, complicated relationship with systemic racism.
Pictures can spark movements. It was, after all, the iconic pictures from the Children’s Crusade (organized by Dr. Dorothy Cotton) that grabbed the nation’s attention and helped push the Civil Rights Acts into law. As Jim Wallis reminded us the first night we were together, however, the difference between an event and a movement is one of sacrifice. Movements require sacrifice, while events simply require you show up.
From Bill Roozeboom
Progress is good, but not enough: Though we (our country, our churches, and ourselves) have made some progress in our willingness and ability to correct issues of racial injustice over the last 50 years, there is still more work to do if we truly want to live into the diverse community I believe God has called us to be. It is good to stop and note the progress, but let’s not allow the allure of movement to sidetrack us from the need to continue the journey.
Racism is about systemic and structural advantages as much as it is about disadvantages: We must expand our understandings of racial injustice to include white privilege and structural and systemic dynamics. Often our conversations around racism ignore the advantages awarded to those of us who are white, which serve to mask the systemic, structural, and interlocking nature of the issues of injustice. Thus, our efforts to overcome such issues must address not only the structural disadvantages, but must name our complicity in the advantages and work for second order change and not simply first order change.
There is a significant difference between “hospitality” and “neighbor love”: Hospitality is easy; it allows those of us in power to retain that power and invite “others” to come into our “house” on our terms. Others are welcome, so long as they follow the “rules of the house.” Neighbor love is difficult; it requires us to be vulnerable, open, and meet the other in mutuality, allowing them to come on their own terms and abide by their own house rules. Consequently, I wonder if our churches are living the concept of loving our neighbors as Christ calls us to, or are we simply being hospitable?
Intriguing points made by speakers, responders, and panelists
Jim Wallis said, when he was a teen, his church elder told him Christianity has nothing to do with racism. That is about politics. Faith is personal only. Wallis said he left the church over that, as his elder’s statement made it hard to love the church. As pastors or ministry leaders, how and where do we communicate the overall love of the church, the connections of love to all of everyday life?
Ron Sider asked Congressman John Lewis how the spark is created to re-ignite today widespread commitment to the cause of Dr. King. Congressman Lewis replied that Dr. King said that James Lawson understood the values of non-violent, direct action better than anyone, and recommended him as a teacher. Lawson taught about King’s philosophy, about what Gandhi did in South Africa and India, and about Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience, and helped the young leaders to deeply prize love, peace, and non-violence. Then that group of committed people who shared core values engaged social change. The spark started in them as a small community. Perhaps if their way held sway today, we would not experience the violence we do in our society now.
Virgil Wood, long-time civil rights leader, said “There can be no beloved community without a beloved economy.”
Dorothy Cotton, perhaps the most influential woman in the Civil Rights movement and a board member of MLK’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, asked, “What kind of society do we want?” and “What does it mean to be human?”
Bernice King asked, “Who has authority to deal with issues outside the temple?” She answered, “The people of God have that authority as well as authority to transform conditions affecting human lives.”
“We have not found ways to show how to be sacrificial in the ways the first century church was. Many will embrace the church after we demonstrate that sort of sacrificial living to them.” – Bernice King
Dorothy Cotton proclaimed she would rather we see Dr. King as an ordinary person rather than as an icon. When we make icons out of leaders, we disempower others by suggesting they have to be like the icon to do things of importance. Resist making icons out of leaders, she charged us.
Quoting her mother, Coretta Scott King, Bernice King said, “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom must be won by every generation.”
Several speakers encouraged: “If the Spirit moves, you must move your feet!”
Dorothy Cotton quoted Dr. King:
“Cowardice asks the question ‘Is it safe?’
Expediency asks the question ‘Is it politic?’
Vanity asks the question ‘Is it popular?’
But, conscience asks the question ‘Is it right?’
And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”