The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good. (Proverbs 15:3)
Metropolitan Tikhon and I are in Birmingham, Alabama today for an interchurch conference on race relations and social justice, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail. Dr King wrote in response to a letter by white clergy calling for patience and restraint. His letter was written on scraps of paper smuggled out of the jail by his attorney.
His Beatitude celebrated Liturgy yesterday morning at Saint Sergius Chapel, then we flew from La Guardia Airport to Atlanta and then Birmingham. Unfortunately the flight from NYC was delayed so we missed our connection and didn’t arrive in time for the opening of the conference and the keynote addresses by Reverend Jim Wallis and Congressman John Lewis. Wallis has been at the forefront of Christian social action for decades (when I was studying at Saint Vladimir’s his book Call to Conversion was required reading.) He has been identified with the Christian left but he himself says “Don’t go left, don’t go right: go deeper.”
Congressman Lewis is an American hero, a living confessor for the civil rights movement. Arrested 24 times, imprisoned, beaten. His skull was fractured by police in Montgomery, he still carries the scars and he still remains devoted to the non-violent heart of King’s approach to social change.
I had been asked to respond last night from an Orthodox perspective, but in my absence Protodeacon Serge Kapral was to read my prepared text (below). He serves at Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Wilkes-Barre, PA and has long been active in interchurch affairs.
Today the conference will begin with a walk and prayers in Kelly Ingram Park,
which was the site of civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s. In May 1963, Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered police and firemen to turn on demonstrators, many of them children and high school students, first with mass arrests and then with police dogs and firehoses.
Christian Churches Together is sponsoring the event and has produced a response to King’s letter from the various Christian church families, including Orthodox.
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50 years after Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
Father John Jillions
One of the key differences between civil rights in 1963 and civil rights in 2013 is the focus. In 1963 the civil rights movement was clearly focused on one single issue: the civil rights of blacks in the US. Later in his life Dr King took up the cause of workers’ rights and opposition to the Vietnam War, but that never eclipsed the main focus of the civil rights movement.
Today there are a number of causes and groups competing to inherit the mantle of that movement. Is it still blacks? Or is it Latinos? Immigrants? The poor? Sexual minorities? Women seeking abortions? The unborn? Or should we be looking outside the US to the rest of the world and focusing on relieving suffering and promoting basic human rights in much worse conditions elsewhere? As people of faith should we be especially concerned about the rights of religious minorities around the world?
This diversity of causes makes it difficult to come together as Christians around any one most obvious cause. But as Christians, what we can do in pursuit of any civil rights cause is to stay focused on the explicitly Christian model of non-violent social change that Martin Luther King lived by, that has the Cross at its heart, that was the message and witness of the early church. This was where he and the confessors of the civil rights movement drew their “sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline.” As Saint Paul said, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). And as Dr King said, “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity.”
As a collection of minority churches, what is the contribution the Orthodox Churches can bring to this discussion? Most generally, we want to be part of the wider conversation by participating in the CCT and in events like this. We want to contribute to the betterment of our society, and to do this we are willing to join hands with everyone else, especially fellow Christians. (Here I have to honor the memory of the late Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos, who in 1965 marched beside Dr King in Montgomery and was pretty much the lone Orthodox voice of support at that time.) But what might be our particular contribution to thinking on these issues?
The answer depends on a prior question: what kind of society do we want? This in turn depends on a still more fundamental question: what does it mean to be human? In the Orthodox Christian experience the human vocation is to be in freely chosen communion with God, with each other and with all creation. A good human society is therefore one that permits these three levels of communion to flourish.
To promote this politics of communion churches can exercise at least three types of ministry: charitable, prophetic and what might be called a “beyond this world” ministry (or eschatological ministry to use a theological term.) Some churches are better at some of these than others, but together we need to be sure all three are covered if we are to contribute meaningfully as Christians and as Churches to social justice. I’ll look very briefly at each of these.
- Charitable ministry. Churches can train local congregations and communities, especially on an ecumenical basis, to do more of this and to be at home in social service and social justice. They can create a culture of service and sacrifice rooted in commitment to following the self-emptying example of Jesus Christ. As a contemporary Greek saint [Elder Paisios of Mount Athos (+1994)] said, “ Sublime joy emanates from sacrifice. Only when we sacrifice ourselves can we be related to Christ, for Christ is sacrifice.”
- Prophetic ministry. Prophets raise the alarm. Prophets keep us focused on worship of God rather than idols. But they also fire us up through their “prophetic imagination.” They dream big dreams of what might be possible beyond the comfort of the status quo. We need to revive this prophetic vocation of being counter-cultural and imagining a world different from the one in front of us. As the Orthodox Metropolitan of Beirut, George Khodre said in 1968, “Their duty of love towards the world imposes on Christ’s disciples the responsibility to participate in its development and radical transformation. Their love can no longer remain on an individual level; it must show itself on the level of community action and historical change.”
- Eschatological ministry (“not of this world”). This brings me to what is the most particular, but also most “foolish” Christian contribution, and that is our faith in Jesus Christ and His kingdom that is not of this world. As the Nicene Creed confesses, “I look for—I look forward to, I long for, I thirst for—the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Even our best charitable and prophetic efforts, policy proposals and political action often have uncertain results. Our traditional emphasis on inward transformation in anticipation of the world to come—so often scorned as quietism— may in fact be what a world in crisis needs right now. An inwardly transformed people can withstand anything a crisis throws at them, especially when other solutions have yet to kick in. This inward purification was fundamental to the movement for non-violent social change.
Human beings “do not live by bread alone” (Matt 4:4, Luke 4:4). How many have “bread” but don’t know how to pray and connect with an eternal source of meaning, peace and hope? This is precisely the spiritual thirst that Jesus came to quench. “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14).
Many of us have known people who display remarkable strength and peace even in the midst of their own suffering and defeats. Generation after generation of Christians have learned by experience the paradox that through the cross joy comes into the world. And what the churches can uniquely do is underline this message of the victorious cross.
God shares in the world’s misery and so makes possible its transformation—even if our policy recommendations and political action come to nothing or if our voices go unheard in the public square. As Saint Paul said, “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13).