Christianity, current events, morality, religion

Evaluating the events of Ferguson et al through the lens of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail:” A social commentary in the wake of the Ferguson et al riots

8 December 2014

16 Kislev 5775

When Martin Luther King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he was engaged in a struggle against the injustice of segregation that existed in the south. When it came to the injustices perpetrated in the south, he could not stand by in good conscience and do mothing: he felt that action was needed: “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God.” With this in

Diane Nash and Freedom Riders

Diane Nash and Freedom Riders

mind, Martin Luther King and other like-minded individuals (e.g. the Freedom Riders) participated in a series of nonviolent marches, sit ins, and protests against the injustice practiced in the south, and history records that the legacy of this movement changed the social structure of southern society and finally ended segregation’s hold in the south. This template of nonviolent resistance is powerful, but I would also like to add that there is more that we need to add to it to affect the changes we need in this hour. For now let’s concentrate on King’s letter, but before we contrast this letter with the Ferguson riots, it would be well to discuss Martin Luther King’s strategy to end injustice contained in his letter.

Martin Luther King used nonviolent protest and civil disobedience as a way to bring about social change. Violence would not be included as a strategy to end injustice, and there are good reasons for this. Violence just leads to more violence, which goes to the principle of sowing and reaping. If you sow wheat, you harvest wheat later. The same is true of violence. Violence is something that forces itself on others against their will, and involuntary change is not the strategy heaven uses as a change agent. God wants us to make voluntary change, as when He stands at the door and knocks. He does not force His way into our hearts, but allows us to make that decision. Some of the fruits of violence on those touched by it are resentment, bitterness, unforgiveness, anger, hatred, and revenge; this shows that violence is immoral. If these things are the results of violence, how can we ever expect to use violence to get a good result? The law of sowing and reaping does not allow this, and we delude ourselves if we think a good fruit results from immoral means. Martin Luther King himself wrote about this in his letter when he said:

Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends.

If we want to change the world for the better, then our methods must use God’s strategies which allow His power to manifest. When He does the work, the change is lasting (Psalm 127: 1) and we become “co workers with God.”

Martin Luther King also employed civil disobedience as a strategy to end injustice, but he was careful to define what he meant lest others think he advocated anarchy. King wrote that there are just laws and unjust laws on the books. We can distinguish which is which by their agreement with the word of God. King writes that “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” In other words, just laws advance good government as well as the happiness and safety of society; therefore it is necessary to obey just laws. On the other hand, King defines an unjust law as “a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law…Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Segregation laws are unjust because the concept of segregation “distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.” King mentions the case of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as an example of civil disobedience. They refused to obey the command to bow down to the image King Nebuchnezzar set up because it violated the commandments of God.

King wrote that any campaign of nonviolent protest must include these four steps: “Collection of facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.” Let’s address these one at a time.

Collection of facts

The question of whether or not an actual injustice occurred must be definitively answered before action is taken. This seems like an obvious precaution, but history has many examples in which action proceeded on the basis of impulse and sketchy facts rather than irrefutable evidence. Strong and passionate feelings that an injustice has occurred are never sufficient cause for action to proceed. When this evidence has been obtained, then the next step is to negotiate.

Negotiation

The evidence of injustice is now the basis for negotiation between the parties for redress of grievances. If the negotiations resolve the injustices, then there is no need to proceed further.  But if negotiations fail, then the next step will be self purification.

Self purification

King realized that his opponents would be out in force to resist their efforts, but they cannot meet the opposition on his own low ground if they want to prevail. Pure means must be used to gain pure ends, so the participants must be properly trained to stay true to the principles of nonviolence. They cannot fight back if they are beaten, and they must be prepared for arrest and jail for their activities. They are now ready for the last step.

Direct action

Left by itself, negotiation will never happen unless circumstances prod it into action. According to King, the purpose of nonviolent direct action “is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” Direct action creates the necessary tension that drives the parties back to the negotiating table so that the injustices may finally be resolved.

The church

There is one more point I would like to address from King’s letter, which was his disappointment with the church. The church is God’s visible representation on Earth. The members of the church are God’s ambassadors, and as believers the church is to continue doing the same works that Yeshua (the Hebrew name for Jesus) did. If this is true, then where are the works? Why is society tearing itself apart when the church has the words of life? Why isn’t our nation getting the balm it needs to heal its wounds? Martin Luther King had high hopes that the church would work with him against injustice in his day, but that hope was to end in disappointment.

What has happened to the church? In the book of Acts, we read that when people came together, there was a sense of awe about the power of God in their midst (Acts 2: 43), and when Ananias and Sapphira died in church, people rightly feared offending that power (Acts 5: 1-13). We don’t hear about that any more, do we? The church has become a mere shadow of its former self. There is no expectation that congregants and visitors will experience the supernatural power of God when they come to church meetings.  Many churches don’t even believe that the gifts of the Spirit are in operation today. Hurting people need a touch from God, but instead they hear a dry sermon void of any power to give them the help they need. When they cannot get what they need from the church, they become disillusioned with God and look for any other way to alleviate the suffering they feel. The church needs to recapture its power and purpose if there is going to be any hope for change. King makes this clear when he writes:

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

We have seen many of these disgusted young people in the Ferguson riots and in the satellite protests in other cities. We need our church leaders to stand up as never before and speak “thus says the Lord” in power and demonstration of the spirit, but many are silent instead; they prefer to take a path that doesn’t offend anyone and friendship with the world. The consequence of this is a self-destructing society and a church that has become an enemy of God. The cold and worldly church of Martin Luther King’s day has become even more so today. This spiritual decay will also be mentioned as a contributing factor when future historians write about the decline and fall of our republic.

Now that we have taken a look at Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” let’s evaluate the events of the Ferguson riots and subsequent Eric Garner protests (hereafter referred to as Ferguson et al) using King’s letter as our guide.

Nonviolence

Marching with Martin Luther King

Marching with Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King advocated a campaign of nonviolence because only pure methods can achieve pure results. If King had gone to Ferguson, he would certainly not be a part of the violence that is still ongoing. If he were to participate, it would be to lead peaceful, nonviolent protests that don’t result in offense and destruction. The destroyed businesses of Ferguson would still be standing if the protesters had chosen to follow King’s path of nonviolence, and the citizens would all benefit from this respect for life and property.

Civil disobedience

There can be no doubt that civil disobedience is happening in Ferguson et al, but it certainly isn’t the civil disobedience Martin Luther King advocated. The situation in these cities is really bordering on chaos and anarchy; respect for the rule of law is at an all-time low, and there is a complete disregard for obeying just laws.

Martin Luther King’s civil disobedience preserved the rule of just laws, which is something that ought to never be neglected. Nothing good will ever come when just laws are disobeyed. The situation in Ferguson et al and the attitude of some of the people show how little regard there is for the rule of law and due process. When Sean Hannity recently interviewed Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, she wasn’t concerned about the evidence. She unbelievably said that it doesn’t matter what did happen, but what should have happened. This is especially shocking since she is a lawmaker; what’s the point in having laws if we disregard them whenever we don’t like them? In that case we could disband our legislatures and do whatever we want.

Respect for the law enforcement is also under assault because Michael Brown’s death is touted as racially motivated. They have come to see the police and law enforcement as defenders of the corrupt status quo, and so they are reviled and disrespected. This appalling behavior was recorded in Denver when protesters openly mocked a police officer, who was protecting them, was hit by a car. We cannot say we have become better as a nation when the suffering of another human being is mocked like this.

Collecting facts

The evidence collected by the grand jury in its decision about Michael Brown’s death has been released for public scrutiny, but that made no difference to Ferguson et al. It was totally ignored in favor of the supposition that a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager, ergo it was a racially motivated homicide and the grand jury is just letting Officer Darren Wilson off the hook. It was a perfect reflection of Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s thinking in this matter.

Facts were important to Martin Luther King, and ought to be to everyone. Without the evidence of injustice, there could be no justification for protest or civil disobedience. When facts are thrown under the bus, we begin the shift from a nation of laws to a vigilante nation where emotional fervor supplants rational thinking, evidence, and the rule of law. We are well on our way to making Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s “The Ox-bow Incident” a reality.

Negotiation and self purification

Negotiation and self purification were non factors in Ferguson et al. There was no dialogue or negotiation in Ferguson et al, just flames of discontent fanned white hot by the racial stokers of our day, nor was there any serious consideration of using the strategy of nonviolent protest.

Direct action

The Ferguson et al riots went immediately to direct action, but it was not the nonviolent direct action Martin Luther

Kristallnacht in Berkeley CA Kale Williams 8 Dec 2014

Kristallnacht in Berkeley CA Kale Williams 8 Dec 2014

King advocated. The violence and lawlessness in Ferguson et al rolled downhill like a boulder destroying everything in front of it. Glass shards from broken windows littered the streets like an American remake of Kristallnacht. Crowds blocked highways and refused to even allow emergency vehicles to pass through. Zemir Begic, an innocent Bosnian man, was bludgeoned to death by black teenagers during the “protests.” Five days later a Bosnian woman was dragged from her car, threatened with murder, and beaten. Businesses (including the one Michael Brown robbed) that had no connection whatsoever to the grand jury verdict were targeted for vandalism, looting, and arson. As if to spite King’s strategy of nonviolence, rioters even vandalized the Martin Luther King building in Berkeley CA. All this violent direct action achieved was to create offense in hearts of many people and decimate the neighborhood. Sowing violence will reap a harvest of violence if the process is not stopped.

Berkeley MLK building damage Karl Mondon 8 Dec 2014

Berkeley MLK building damage Karl Mondon 8 Dec 2014

The church

All that Ferguson et al did was show us the true spiritual condition of our country. As is the condition of the church, so is the condition of the nation; and right now, our nation is on life support. Many will disagree and say that it’s not that bad. They may admit that there are times when the waters get choppy, but they calm down again. Our real condition is like the ocean waters that cover a sunken city. While the surface waters appear calm and serene, they cover the true state of affairs, which is a scene of ruin and destruction. A powerless church that has made peace with the world has helped give birth to legions of disappointed and disgusted young people who arrogantly say “who is the Lord, that I should obey Him?”

There are better ways to handle injustice than violence. Even if all the people of Ferguson et al did was to consider the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and glean its wisdom and advice to advance their cause, the riots of Ferguson et al would never have happened because the facts would not support direct action. And even if direct action were appropriate, it would have been nonviolent in nature.

Reconciliation

Our President has recently spoken about the need to rebuild trust between our communities and law enforcement. I agree with this, but not for the reasons our President might give. When he includes that fact that law enforcement needs to rebuild trust with the community, he presupposes that the law enforcement community is the one at fault and needs to make amends for their actions. We can see this in his statement (4 Dec 2014) after the Eric Garner verdict. President Obama said:

Some of you may have heard there was a decision that came out today by a grand jury not to indict police officers who had interacted with an individual with Eric Garner in New York City, all of which was caught on videotape and speaks to the larger issues that we’ve been talking about now for the last week, the last month, the last year, and, sadly, for decades, and that is the concern on the part of too many minority communities that law enforcement is not working with them and dealing with them in a fair way.

What? This has been going on for decades? He makes it sound like the problem is widespread and vast, but I take exception to his statement. Our law enforcement community has been unfairly portrayed by the President’s words. While it is true that there have been instances of bad apples in police departments across the nation, it does not follow that this is indicative of a widespread problem. With this in mind, I would like to offer up my contribution to the reconciliation of law enforcement and our community with an open letter to all of those serving in law enforcement.

To all our brave men and women serving in law enforcement,

President Obama (4 Dec 2014) has made remarks recently that paint a picture of law enforcement officers in a negative light. I want you to know I strongly disagree with the allegation made in his statement that you have not treated all the members of our community fairly. This blanket statement lumps all of law enforcement into one basket, and to use the President’s own words, this doesn’t treat everyone fairly.

It has to be admitted that sometime there are bad apples in the police department, and it is unfortunate when the press focuses attention on them, or when politicians blame our problems on law enforcement officers for the sake of politics. For every bad apple, there are scores of officers who are serving with honor and distinction. These are the officers I want to recognize and thank; they don’t always get the credit they deserve, but their work and sacrifice are what help make our community a better place. They are well trained professionals we depend on when things get out of hand.

I want to thank all of you for your service to our community. You do a thankless and dangerous job, and you do it with honor and professionalism. I gratefully acknowledge a debt of gratitude that I owe you for your service. I pray that the Lord will send His angels to watch over you when you report to work, and bring you home safely to your families at the end of your shift. I would encourage everyone to also extend their thanks to our law enforcement officers for the work they do. Thank you again for your service and a job well done.

Reconciliation means we also need to actively forgive each other. Unforgiveness only advances the Adversary’s kingdom, and we don’t want to be on his team, do we? We are also in a shemitah year, which is a year of release. At the end of the shemitah year all debts were to be cancelled. Let’s make the shemitah year real again and cancel all debts whether they are physical debts or spiritual ones. Forgive freely because you have been forgiven. Set your debtors free because the Lord has set you free. The only debt that is allowed to survive the shemitah year is the debt we have to love one another (Rom 13: 8). Love is the glue that will bring us together and heal our wounds. Therefore love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Race stokers are still fanning the flames of racism in our communities, but we must not allow ourselves to be drawn into their camp. We must not embrace violence as a way to change society. Yeshua mentioned an incident in which Pilate killed a number of Galileans while they were sacrificing (Luke 13: 1). Yeshua knew about this, but He didn’t use this to advocate rioting and protesting the Roman occupation. It was more important to Him that we repent and get our affairs with God in order. While nonviolence is a powerful way to change society, given the late hour that we live in, it is absolutely necessary to redouble our efforts using the supernatural power of God. We must press on to better things by using a more excellent way to change our society for the better than the race stokers. The church must not forget that we have the weapons of God at our disposal; they are mighty and powerful beyond anything man can conceive of:

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ

2 Cor 10:3-5 (ESV)

And don’t forget this:

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

James 5:16-18 (ESV)

We need to continue to pray that our nation will see massive repentance, revival, and reconciliation with God. When this happens, we can lay hold of God’s promise to heal our land (2 Chron 7: 14). I would like to close with a final quote from Martin Luther King. Even though these words were written from a Birmingham jail in 1963, one could mistake them for the situation in Ferguson et al:

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Fare ye well, my beloved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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