Rev. Winnie Varghese on Martin Luther King and the Communique's Requested Pause
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the Letter from Birmingham Jail (published in The Christian Century in 1963) as a response to a letter from Alabama clergymen, Christian and Jewish, titled A Call for Unity.
A Call for Unity decried the intrusion of so many black activists into their peaceful city to stir up trouble. These activists were marching for the rights of black people to equal access to public facilities and full protection under the law. The response was that the law blasted them with fire hoses, beat them and jailed them. It was a different time and place, and a movement most of us have come to agree was of God and significant in expanding the definitions of a person guaranteed rights by the founding documents of this country and advancing the experience of God's justice and peace in this nation.
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Near the end of the Birmingham letter's nine pages, King quotes T.S. Eliot: "The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason." At the Executive Council meeting in Portland in March, one man, hands in the air in frustration, said, "You've won, the church is yours!" He said there were many he knew that felt there was no longer room for them in this church because of our statements of inclusion for gay and lesbian people.
I think Mr. Eliot addresses what is emerging as the new issue in this debate. The Episcopal Church seems to be moving forward on the arc of justice -- hesitantly, but forward. We do not actually require an action to expose the tensions lying under the surface. The injustice is exposed, though it continues to fester. Some have asked that we cover it up once again. Our leadership seems determined to lance the proverbial boil, expose it to fresh air and let the body heal. This is the metaphor King uses for segregation. The rising up of black people demanding their rights under the law in the cities of the South seemed defeated by armed police. When the National Guard and the federal government enforced the law supporting desegregation, good church people left their churches and abandoned entire neighborhoods.
There was no longer room for them in their familiar places, they said. There was no longer room for their opinions and their worldview if a black person could sit in the pew with them or own the house next door.
That is the hard truth of what we are doing.
Mr. Eliot reminds us that we do not support these shifts simply because General Convention has voted in the majority on our behalf. We believe in full equality under the law and in our churches for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people because it is right. I have no doubt it is a move towards making our churches more reflective of the justice already alive in God's dream for us. It is the right thing, even though it is making many uncomfortable. Our comfort with injustice does not negate its evil.
Why can't we throw them a bone? Because, like our churches' eventual support for the Civil Rights Movement, this issue draws a line in the sand on the issue of human dignity. Our churches are still, overall, segregated by race. If the pattern is predictive, you don't have to worry about your local LGBT community arriving en masse Sunday morning demanding a space next to you at the altar, but we as a church will be a witness in our world for the full equality under the law of a community still abused by laws and civil authorities. It might make you uncomfortable, but we will do what is right, because it is right.
Read it all.