Every aspect of my life can be traced back to that one moment when I made a snap decision in answering the question ‘Are you sure you want _us_ to write your recommendations?’ In the short term I thought I gave the worst possible answer to that question, but in the long term it was the best mistake I ever made. — Kevin Fox
Every so often, MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” makes the social media rounds again. This weekend on Twitter and FB a few folks have shared the quote, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
That letter is one of my favorites. When I was looking at it again the other day I realized that the common title, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” keeps pop attention on where King physically was when he wrote it. The letter’s actual argument, intended audience, and wider context gets obscured.
The letter was also printed under the title “The Negro is Your Brother” and was published in excerpts and in full with and without King’s permission between 1963 and 1964. It responded to eight so-called moderate clergymen who, while sympathetic to the logic of the equality movement, viewed equality activists as “naturally impatient” troublemakers who should defer to the courts and not press their concerns or stir up the calm locals. They’d published two open letters that year criticizing “outsiders” and appealing for “law and order,” and King responded to all of that noise head on.
We rarely hear about their responses to King’s reply. 🙂 One of the 8 had allowed local civil rights workers to worship at his church; his congregation fractured over race after the minister moved away two years later. Another become a strong public advocate for equality, and his church peers accused him of being a communist and heretic. At least two of the 8 were offended by King’s letter, one calling it “propaganda” in his memoirs, and the other only criticizing it after King’s death.
A More Personal Reflection
Nearly 4 years ago, I moved back to the Southwest after several months in the DC region. The congregation I attended that first Sabbath back in town hosted a minister from a neighboring state.
This minister pitched his sermon on spiritual warfare against every possible boogeyman: Catholics, feminists, intellectuals, LGBT people, atheists and non-Christians. I can no longer remember whether I was more dismayed by the sermon’s spiritualized prejudice or by the congregation’s casual affirmation of it.
I took a sabbatical from that congregation, and later made that sabbatical permanent.
Since then I’ve moved away and found a church that does not promote or justify prejudice, but occasionally I’m reminded that this is an unusual congregational feature.
Today, thanks to the internet, I overheard a Sabbath School conversation in which visible LGBT people were represented as a sign of the degenerate end times. If any class participant disagreed with that claim, none of them rebutted it, so it hung in the air as if valid.
In pulpits and on talk shows, too, any believer or preacher can freely tie an Other’s visibility to the power of Satan and the rapidly approaching end of the age. “Free speech” might be free for the speaker but often has high costs for the subject, and it’s rarely challenged in the moment where it counts most. We have too many silent friends.
I’ve been a silent friend before. I’ve also been a silent Other. But both roles support and sustain prejudice, alienation, and fear. Neither role benefits me or those I love. Neither role helps to create the world that I want to live in as an adult. I’ve moved on and am grateful for the organizations that have helped me find more sustainable roles to play.
Have you ever been a silent friend? How did it feel? Why were you silent? Did you tell yourself it wasn’t the right time to speak up? How do you know what “the right time” is? Do you believe it’s ever more important to guard a speaker’s soapbox than it is to challenge false witnessing against the people he or she is speaking about? Is silence acceptance, and critique an attack?
Some friends have participated in religious liturgies this month, and with those friends I’ve been reflecting on the multitude of stories that we recount around Passover and Easter. There are a world of possible insights to draw from them — including the following.
Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, Rabbi David Ingber explored the meaning of freedom for a modern mixed multitude at St. Francis Xavier church in New York. He recounted the Israelite exodus memorialized by the Passover Seder: the Passover/Exodus story culminates with tears of sorrow and tears of relief, some people saved and others drowned. I’ve been thinking a lot about how he read it: a story of Israelites winning and Egyptians losing, a zero-sum game that contemporary freedom evangelists should seek to outgrow.
We won’t be fooled by movements which free only some of us and in which our so-called “freedom” rests upon enslavement or embitterment of others… God help us dream new paths to freedom so that the next sea-opening is not also a drowning, so that our singing is never again their wailing.
— R. David Ingber
The recent and very public arguments among Christian proponents of different hell doctrines put a big spotlight on the zero-sum game for me. Whatever each model might otherwise resolve, all of them amplify the idea that some will drown while others escape, that some will sing a new song while others gnash their teeth, and that this is a good that will be so eternally.
Along with Ingber’s comments, another contrast came to me from Buddhism’ first universal vow, which I read this week. The author who shared it was a Catholic priest who had received this redemption vow from a friend at one of the darkest moments in his life. The vow gave him the language he needed to figure out how to emerge from his darkness, he stabilized, and went on to a deeply transformative ministerial life.
I take upon myself the burden of my suffering brothers and sisters; I am resolved to do so. I will endure it. I will not turn or run away. I will not turn back. I cannot.
And why? My endeavors do not merely aim at my own deliverance. I must help all my brothers and sisters cross the stream of this life which is so difficult to cross. With the help of the boat of compassion I must help them across the stream. I would fain become a soother of all the sorrows of my brothers and sisters. May I be a balm to those who are sick, their healer and servant until sickness come never again. May I become an unfailing store for my poor brothers and sisters and serve them in their need. May I be, in the famine at the ages’ end, their drink and their meat.
My own being, all my life, all my spirituality in the past, present, and future, I surrender that my brothers and sisters may win through to their end, for they dwell in my spirit.
A person who took on this vow might have a rough time assuming that his or her enlightenment could be had at others’ expense: if you live for service to all, then service to just some won’t satisfy you. Instead one must assume that one’s life’s work will be bound up in the lives and experiences of one’s entire human family: the whole with the tribe, not the remnant over the rest. I don’t think this vow is just about universal scope either; Easter sermons ritually describe the Christian narrative as universally important, but whenever the Easter story is framed only in historical terms, it’s rarely also taught as a symbol of universal experience — universal compassion and universal participation.
Twitter is replete with tweets about what the Paschal season “really means,” as if without the Twitterati we’d collapse under a candy avalanche with nary an opportunity to contemplate sacrifice, redemption, or renewal. But thanks to the contributions I’ve shared in this note (one of which I got via Twitter, lol), I’ve been imprinted with the phrase “participation without partiality.” PWP: How might I embody universal relationship while also living in a society and amongst people who treasure partial, zero-sum relationships over impartial, non-zero-sum ones? I don’t have much more to say to that yet, except the sense that it’s something I should keep embodying, and that I shouldn’t retreat into partiality whatever my incentives.
May your coming week be filled with moderate consumption of leftover chocolate. And immoderate perception of love.