By Paul Baxley
On this day we set aside to remember the life and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I find myself remembering the words he wrote nearly sixty years ago in an open letter to Christian leaders in Birmingham. Ironically, his words were written in response to concerns raised not among the most conservative white pastors, but instead to those raised by some of Alabama’s most liberal white ministers. Concerned that Dr. King’s nonviolent resistance would create more violence than not, they recommended that he limit his pursuit of racial justice to the legal system.
His response was nothing less than a call for bold faithfulness. Consider his words and recognize the timelessness of their prophetic urgency:
I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause, and with deep moral concern, serve as the channel through which our just grievances would get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again, I have been disappointed. I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshippers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say: “Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern” and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely other-worldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.
There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being disturbers of the peace and outside agitators. But they went on with the conviction that they were a colony of heaven and had to obey God rather than men. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.”
Things are different now. The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.
Dr. King sought nothing less than a faith so bold that God could use it to transform the world. Now six decades later, the need for such bold faithfulness is even more urgent.
Among those who established the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship there were bold, visionary and risk-taking people of faith. To be sure, not all of us have always been (or are today) practicing a bold and reconciling faith when it comes to matters of racial justice. Dr. King’s appeal still demands a bold and faithful response.
But we can be encouraged because among those who established the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are leaders who took courageous stands toward justice and reconciliation.
Remember Dr. Emmanuel McCall, for whom our racial justice initiative is named, who stepped forward courageously at Southern Seminary a half century ago to join others in seeking justice. Even now, he is still about the work of challenging our Fellowship to be a community that more reflects the beautiful racial and ethnic diversity intended by God in creation and present in the early church.
Or remember my first predecessor Dr. Cecil Sherman, who as a young pastor at First Baptist Church in Asheville, North Carolina, worked courageously and at great risk to open the membership of his congregation to black people. Then, on the Sunday following the assassination of Dr. King, Dr. Sherman took a significant risk in making his congregation’s Sanctuary available for the community’s use for a Memorial Service. The following day he was one of a small number of white people who participated in a march in honor of Dr. King in downtown Asheville. These are only two examples, and there are others. There are also leaders in our Fellowship community who are not only speaking the language of racial justice but offering their lives toward it.
On the Martin Luther King holiday following the four hundredth anniversary of black enslavement in the United States, Dr. King’s call to bold faith, particularly his call for bold faith among white Christians, is incredibly timely. In these days, let us offer a visible, compelling and bold witness in our lives and in our congregations.
Paul Baxley serves as the executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. You can find all of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail here.