“My Dear Fellow Clergymen:” Confessing King

By Annica Gage

My dear Fellow Clergymen: While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities “unwise and untimely.” So begins Martin Luther King’s now-famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” first published in 1963 and since shared in a myriad of textbooks, liturgies, museums, and speeches. Most recently, within our own context, the PC(USA) is considering whether to add King’s letter to our own Book of Confessions. Considering the number of present activities that King’s fifty-five-year-old words still resonate, to embrace his words as confession would be wise and timely indeed.

We add texts to our Book of Confessions for two reasons. One, because they are prophetic, both rooted in their original time and place and time yet speaking to issues that are timeless. And two, because they inform our identity as a denomination and a church, articulating values we hold and aspire to live out. King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” clearly meets both those precedents.

King’s response to criticism of direct action and nonviolent resistance, his frustration with the white moderate Christians’ willingness to waitfor a mythical “right time” to protest, his mourning the brutalization of black citizens at the hands of citizens and police alike — all these words have been echoed nonstop, most recently via the Black Lives Matter movement. King’s letter was written in 1963, but speaks to issues of power and justice we, Fellow Clergymen, find ourselves continuing to confront in 2018.

To embrace King’s words as confessional, then, is to acknowledge that we are not yet done with the struggle for full racial justice and to proclaim that the time to act is now. To add King’s defense of direct action and wake-up call to the church is to take up the mantle still burning bright from the Civil Rights movement.

There’s also great value in adding America’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” alongside South Africa’s 1986 “Belhar Confession” and Germany’s 1934 “Barmen Declaration.” Our Book of Confessions currently contains confessions that speak to racial justice in a global context, but not a local one, despite the majority of PC(USA) members and churches being in the United States. To include a confession that addresses racial (in)justice as it has specifically manifest in the United States is to equip our denomination and our churches with more precise language — and more focused conviction.

I make this recommendation to add King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” to our Book of Confessions with only one caveat: if we are to embrace it as one of our confessions, then we must be ready to live into what we confess. We must be prepared to go where there is injustice, to follow King’s example as King followed Paul’s example. We must be able to discern the difference between just and unjust laws and act according to our higher call and conscience. And we must be able to hear King’s justified frustration with the white moderate Christian — and resist the all-too-familiar reflex to continue promising freedom for all, just not yet.

My dear Fellow Clergymen. Are you listening?