"I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham…We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside alligator’ idea. Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country.” (290)
The call for justice in America can feel overwhelming. There are many oppressors with many faces, income brackets, and social classes—some are more obvious, others are not. We all wear a cloak of burden, however, in this discussion. As King states in the opening quote, “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly”. We are, in fact, our brother’s keeper. This does mean we spoon feed our brother, cradle him from a scratch, or keep him from independent growth; but if our brother is dying, hurt, or otherwise mistreated, we have a call.
King talks about the stark realities of this mistreatment from his place in a jail cell: “Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” (290)
Throughout the letter, I could not separate one thing: it was the fact that I felt a deep connection to many of King’s statements. Why? Because I hear them ring true in my own life and my own personal “movement”. I will in no way equate my experiences with King’s and the many oppressed—and those still oppressed—because of race.
But the weight of oppression, fear, and mistreatment feels familiar.
I see a glaring connection between King’s words as they spoke to civil rights then, as they transcend to the debate surrounding gay rights now—especially those intricate social interactions within the Church (which King addresses).
TIME Magazine notes that the stark difference between the Civil Rights movement then and gay rights today: The writer notes that the battle for gay rights presently is “not nearly as painful” and has turned into—even to its most adamant enemies—a kind of "resigned acceptance” (Time). I would challenge more conversation on that point, but understand the need to define boundaries between one oppressed population and another. These are separate issues.
With the recent news of Alabama’s issuing of its first same-sex wedding licenses, I draw to King’s words again. Change isn’t a hasty or reactive thing. It requires the thought and planning and prayerful consideration of all parties involved. But in terms of LGBTQ people trying to find a place in the church, I think the discussion—and proceeding action—is necessary.
King states what I reiterate wholeheartedly; “I must confess that I am not afraid of the word tension…there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth.” (291) Though the discussions, the theologies, and the Scriptures all cause pause and thought and questions, the embrace of the person in front of us must not.
Jesus called all—though all did not answer. So we must not think it our duty to determine who is allowed at the feet of the Lord, but instead make room for those who want to lay there with us. Our duty is one of ushering people into God’s presence, and removing the hurdles which may prevent them from getting there.
The tension in the homosexuality debate within the church lies directly in one of King’s statements, where he says that “a just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” (293) This is the place—and the point and argument—where some would say that the laws which deny gay couples the right to marry are “just”, because these laws “square with the moral law, or the law of God”.
But what is the law of God? Is it 613 commandments? What about the one?
Jesus created a travel-sized Old Testament when he said “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself”; he pedestaled the essence of discipleship, which is a reckless abandon to the Lord and to others. This does not mean that the Old Testament is irrelevant or incapable of teaching, by any means, but it is not our gospel; and it is not the entirety of the story of our God, or our Savior.
Where does this leave gay Christians? Or rather, where does this leave Christians (who fall within the LGBTQ spectrum)?
Well, it leaves them at the feet of a Lord who calls them—to Himself—to obey a law of Love that isn’t watered down, but strong and powerful and challenging. I do not think children of God should be left at the mercy of a state who decides what their walk with the Lord should look like, in terms of choosing spouses or partners.
The need to create black and white boundaries around tradition negates the core of what humanity is; nuanced, stretched, and far beyond legalistic regulation.
The Lord calls the entirety of a person to His feet. So the oppression of those willing to bring their entire self to the feet of an eternal Creator must end.
We cannot oppress those willing to be honest. These are people; friends, neighbors, family, brothers and sisters in “the Family; they are the whole and the broken and the sinful and the chained and the free and the grace-filled and the forgiven, all at once. “These people” are us. “They” are me and “they” are you. I’d think that we have started loving well when we stop using “they” to describe those we think separate from ourselves; because none of us is so separated from the other that we are not called human; we are all human.
King references a kind of civil disobedience which was demonstrated in the Bible; “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego [refuse] to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved” (294). I am also reminded of that story, and the three men’s’ defiance to the ruler’s scare tactics, which gives hope to both of these rights issues—even within the Church.
In the Bible, the king threatens these three men with “death by fire”; the three respond boldly.
"If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up." Daniel 3:17-18
Regardless of the end point, God has won.
I see this same fearlessness in King’s approach to the civil rights movement then, and my own inner, personal “movement” now, as we all may see in our lives as we say no to fear and oppression (in whatever way they manifest themselves). It is the moment when I, and you—like King—refuse to shudder at the scare tactics of an oppressor.
How? Why? Because our God is bigger.
He has defeated all even if—in my life—I feel defeated. He has won every battle even if—in my life—I lose. And He has paved my path by way of unique signposts, delicate words, and fiery passion, even if—in my life—I feel completely lost.
Rejected by the world, I am always accepted by Christ.
This is why I resonate so strongly with many of King’s statements; because I feel the transcendence of the civil rights movement within my own personal movement. I think you may resonate with his words too; in your own battles for inner, emotional, psychological, or spiritual dignity; for your own human and God-given right to stand in your own skin, and be at peace. It is happening in the news and the church pews of today—it may be happening in the ghostly, slimly, and poisonous reverberations of lies, shame, or hurt within your own heart—and it is an unjust oppression that must end.
I reiterate the call that King makes to the Church, as someone who loves it deeply, and who holds its Scriptures as close to her heart as a denominationally-displaced sinner can.
“I love the church; I love her sacred walls…But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and fear of being nonconformists…The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound…Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?” (300)
We must drop fear.
We must cling to those who are willing to march, walk, or hold us up through the fight for justice for all. Those who are willing to acknowledge the fight that, truly, transcends one time period and moves into each of our hearts as we find ourselves oppressed by an unforgiving world and an unforgiving Enemy—but all in the face of a wildly beautiful, wholly forgiving God.
We must drop fear.
We must stand with and acknowledge those who believe “that right defeated is [still] stronger than evil triumphant”; stand with those whose “witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these trouble times.” (300)
It is with them that we stand; and still, as always, it is with those that we join in our call for justice. We stand, even as evil tries to swipe away the holy hand of a God who only wishes to hold us more tightly.
We stand and drop everything else.