Modern contemplation on the ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’
Before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day completely fades from our awareness for another year, let’s pause to be challenged by his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
The letter is dated April 16, 1963, and was literally written from his jail cell at first on the margins of a newspaper, then on scraps of paper provided by a black employee of the jail, and then finally on a writing pad supplied by his lawyers. It’s a long letter, 10 pages.
After responding to criticisms leveled against him in a public ad from his fellow clergy, he goes on to vent his frustration with two groups that he had hoped would rally to his cause reflexively: white moderates and the white churches.
He criticizes white moderates for being too wedded to negotiation and external peace in the streets. In other words, everything should stay calm and orderly. He says that negotiations have only resulted in betrayal and inaction, which is why nonviolent demonstrations in the streets are necessary. They create the kind of tension that will lead to sincere negotiations. He laments that white moderates prefer to remain unruffled. I am not certain, but I think the term “moderate” in his day would be called liberal today.
He criticizes the white church for being more invested in conformity to the status quo than in the churches’ age-old charisma of prophecy against injustice. Instead some leaders of the white church have been outright opponents of his methods … “and too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”
And so, let’s look to today.
Just as those in power in the ’60s were strongly immune from allowing things to change because they wanted to protect their privilege and position, so I believe we humans who have declared ourselves the stewards of the planet are averse to inconvenience when it comes to viewing Mother Earth as our equal. Elsewhere, MLK says, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Minimizing the threat of climate change is like tinkering with the engine room on the Titanic while refusing to acknowledge the iceberg up ahead. As Linda and I experienced in our shaman training a year ago in March, the trees have a wisdom they communicate underground and overhead; the stones have a song to sing; the wind is whispering to us. Are we listening?
Bill O’Brien is a consciousness coach and shamanic practitioner. He and his wife Linda have lived in Shepherdstown since 2005. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.