Birmingham Revolution

Birmingham Revolution

Fifty years ago Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama, scratching out a modern epistle in the margins of a newspaper. The Letter from a Birmingham Jail was a direct response to a letter published in the local newspaper written by a group of Birmingham clergy who were critical of the civil rights movement which had upset the balance in the “Magic City”. Rev. King’s response was nuanced and not without charity. It was also very direct.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail is especially fascinating for its open criticism of those Christian leaders who considered themselves progressive yet who distanced themselves from the Civil Rights movement. Rev. King’s logic and critique reveal the strange and disappointing relationship between white Christians and their pastors and the experiences of their African American brothers and sisters in the Faith. As Edward Gilbreath shows in his new book, Birmingham Revolution, the relationship is no historical artifact. Rev. King’s critique retains its prophetic edge today.

Gilbreath acknowledges that Rev. King’s life, including this important episode in Birmingham, have been extensively documented, analyzed, and interpreted over the years. So why another book? Gilbreath’s unique and helpful contribution comes from his journalist’s eye, his commitment to Christian faith, and his long experience in white and black churches. From this vantage point he weaves a captivating narrative that pulls from history and contemporary events and shows the ongoing relevancy of Rev. King’s letter.

To show why the letter still matters Gilbreath ranges far and wide: NPR stories; many interviews, including with those who participated in the Civil Rights Movement; The Boondocks; his own personal experiences of race and injustice. He combines an unflinching eye with a light touch and the book moves quickly, subtly building the case that Rev. King’s observations and questions should be applied to the justice issues of our day. Throughout the book we meet lesser-known heroes of the movement- Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth is one the author is especially drawn to, and for good reason! We’re left wondering about who our contemporary foot soldiers are. Who are the women and men whose faith directs them toward such courageous compassion and critique?

Early in the book Gilbreath writes,

Just like Luther’s memo nailed to the Wittenberg Church door, King’s jailhouse epistle is a document teeming with deep and challenging ideas about theology, justice and freedom. If we allow it, we’ll find King’s freestyle meditation will take us on a sweeping journey form the Birmingham, Bible Belt, Deep South of 1963 to the postracial, post-Christian, Red State-Blue State cacophony of twentieth-first-century America and beyond.

Glibreath is just the right guide and Birmingham Revolution maps the journey with precision, imagination, and just the right amount of hope.

On Saturday February 22 Edward Gilbreath will be our church’s guest for a half-day conference that will be open to the public. We’d love to have you join us. I’ll share the details next month.

thanks for the links

My little blog has the privilege of being linked to by a handful of other sites.  The authors of these blogs are an eclectic and witty bunch of folks and I’d highly recommend checking out each of their sites.

Andy Rowell is a Th.D. student at Duke Divinity School and an astute observer of American Evangelicalism.  Andy is the go-to guy for statistics and footnotes.  He regularly points out helpful resources for those in pastoral ministry.

Skye Jethani is the managing editor at Leadership Journal.  Skye’s blog is fairly new and loosely follows the themes of his forthcoming book, The Divine Commodity.  Skye regularly offers insightful critique of the state of the church in a consumer-oriented  culture.

Eugene Cho is the founding pastor of Quest Church in Seattle.  Eugene has the unique ability to raise really provocative questions in a way that invites civil conversation, a skill I greatly admire.

Edward Gilbreath, a fellow Chicagoan, is the editorial director of Urban Ministries, Inc and has recently been involved with the launch of  Edward’s commentary on the recent presidential election was thoughtful and served as a guide to many who were confused by the role of race and racism in the primaries and general election.

Catherine McNiel has a wide range of interests: parenting, literature, and world religions to name a few of the more prominent themes.  Catherine is the best writer of the blogs I regularly read; her observations stike the lovely balance between the very physical aspects of life and the transcendence behind those moments.

Ray Kollbocker is the senior pastor of Parkivew Community Church, our former suburban church where I worked for 5 years.  Ray K has a wicked sense of humor and his blogging combines this with his diverse interests and pastoral sensibility.

Pilgrim Without a Shrine has probably been linked to by my blog more than any other.  In addition to being a great friend, Pilgrim offers first-person observations from the Middle East that is increasingly important for us to hear.  The blog regularly offers the stories behind the latest spectacular headlines from the region.  His stories about finding good food and haircuts add the personal touch befitting a blog of this type.

Out of Ur is Leadership Journal’s blog that I contribute to on a monthly basis.  It’s a kick to see what topics the blog’s commentors will latch on to.  I know of few better sources for a sense of what evangelical-type churches and pastors are talking about.

Thanks for the links folks and please keep blogging; I learn a lot from each of you.  Did I miss any?  Leave a comment if you’re site is linking to Signs of Life.