On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote an open letter to fellow clergy from the Birmingham Jail. It is the best-known documentary contribution of the twentieth century to the American tradition of civil disobedience and conscience. He wrote to explain why the movement couldn’t yield to pressure to let up on its non-violent campaign civil disobedience–why they couldn’t wait.
Written nearly half a century ago, that letter sheds light on why the Diocese of California (Bay Area) would provoke further crisis at their General Convention, and why the national Church could very well provoke the international Anglican Communion to suspend the American Episcopal Church from full participation. Because in the American context the civil rights movement models the struggle for full acceptance of homosexuals. It also suggests why the moratorium on consecration of bishops living in same sex unions will neither be honored by California as determinative of its election nor extended by the House of Bishops as the Archbishop of Canterbury has requested. More compelling than any sermon of the past century, the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” is embedded in the American conscience.
According to it nonviolent direct action does not so much create tension as “bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive . . . where it can be seen and dealt with.” The gospel fitfully propels “social progress” so that groups that have been excluded or persecuted in the past for the sake of harmony are incorporated by means of acceptance and reconciliation. While successive holocausts of the twentieth century have called social progress into question, it remains the basic assumption of the liberal American consensus. Even with that consensus breaking down, it is the moral clarity of the Letter from the Birmingham Jail–enshrined as American holy writ¬–that informs the interpretation of the Episcopal Church.
“The present tension in the South is a necessary phase…[the American Negro] has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.” He sees the wrenching discontinuity between the “already” and the “not yet” being played out in the struggle for justice moving from one “peace” to another. So he calls upon his colleagues in ministry to reject moderation and become “extremists for love,” for “the cause of justice.” So the Episcopal Church will respectfully disregard calls to wait until the worldwide communion of Anglican churches does its long overdue “listening” to the witness of homosexuals and reaches a new consensus.
King affirms “the interrelatedness of all communities:” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Globalization makes this sound less rhetorical today; our “network of mutuality” is gloriously and painfully obvious. We can no longer cast any vote in the developed north and ignore its impact on our sisters and brothers in the less developed global south. When the Anglican Primate of an African province publicly supports laws banning homosexual relationships in his own country, it is experienced as an attack in the American Church. When the General Convention is confronted with the provocative prospect of confirming the election of a bishop in a committed same-sex relationship, it is out of love for those who, though united to us, violently disagree with us that we will decide for consent. In the words of the prayer remembering Dr. King, to “resist oppression in the name of [God’s] love” anywhere is to seek to “secure for all [God’s] children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
King’s words from jail haunt us: “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see…that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” The nomination process in the Diocese of California was conducted with prayerful consideration of who might best serve the whole church. If the outcome on May 6 is the election of a priest in a same-sex relationship, General Convention will be called to an act of ecclesial disobedience, which in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., will be the equivalent of a “direct action campaign.” May we be up to the challenge.
–The Rev. James S. Ward is rector, St. Stephen’s Church, Belvedere/Tiburon, California