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I often find myself turning to the sermons and writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. when contemplating issues of justice. In light of the debate surrounding women’s ordination, I turned again to his writings, specifically his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,”[i] for guidance. In reading this letter again, I was struck at how relevant it is for the discussion today.
The “Letter From Birmingham Jail” was written in response to a letter he received while in jail from eight white ministers. This letter was titled, “A Call For Unity,” in which the pastors urged King and others fighting for justice to pursue the matters through the courts and to abide by their decisions. They suggest that progress was being made and that the demonstrations were “unwise and untimely.”[ii]
In eerily similar fashion, on June 29, the General Conference also issued their own “Appeal For Unity,”[iii] calling for the Columbia Union and Pacific Union to allow the study process setup by the CG to play itself out. It too dangles the carrot of progress and study in an attempt to squelch the voices calling for justice.
So what did King write in response to the call that the demand for immediate justice was “unwise and untimely?
Perhaps the most famous quote from his letter reminds us that we cannot pick and choose when we will fight for justice because:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
King also responds to the idea that their protests were untimely and that they should wait for the process to play itself out by writing:
My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebhuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
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."
When the GC issued their appeal for unity, it was touted that it had the full support of “40 senior leaders of the church, including the 13 division presidents who also serve as vice-presidents of the General Conference.”[iv] It should be noted that there was likely only one woman, Ella Simmons, a General Conference Vice President, who was part of that group of 40. How different would that letter have been if more voices of those who are “oppressed” were being heard?
Perhaps the most stinging critique King provides is that of the “white moderate.” He writes:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
He continues later:
I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
I have talked to several people who have said that they believe women should be ordained. However, they don’t want to fight the issue because it’s merely a distraction and there are more pressing matters such as saving the lost. Others say they don’t want to risk offending Adventists in other parts of the world. Even others add that we should let the study process play itself out. They always end with their belief that the church will eventually ordain women so let’s just not worry about it now.
After reading the above quotes from King, it’s hard to still embrace the position of “I support women’s ordination, but. . .” As he reminds us, “time itself is neutral” and “progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
As you read the GC’s “Appeal for Unity” you see them trying to paint those fighting for women’s ordination to happen now to be taking an extreme position that is out of harmony with the rest of Adventism. However, we should not be deterred as King reminds us:
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.
I will close with a final reflection from King which provides a prophetic warning to the church:
So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
My prayer is that all of us will not stand idly by but ensure that this prophetic warning will not come true. May we all be devoted to justice today, not tomorrow.