April 25, 2013
The Monday before last, I stood with others in prayer in Birmingham, Alabama’s Kelly Ingram Park. This park is diagonally across the street from the 16th Street Baptist church, where in 1963 four young girls died in a bombing motivated by the sins of racial bigotry.
I had just viewed the plaque commemorating the sad, tragic deaths when I saw in the park a reference to a law from 50 years ago that prohibited white children from playing with children of other races. This shocking reminder reinforced the need for this struggle for freedom. Those who protested non-violently stated that they did not so much want to rejoice at a victory but rather celebrate justice achieved and reconciliation won.
At this Birmingham event that marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” two other themes emerged, the first from the remarks of Dr. King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King. The Rev. King talked at Monday’s program about how struggle is a part of life and freedom must be won in each generation. She feared, however, that young people today might not be prepared for the necessary sacrificial love that undergirds the struggle for freedom.
She did not blame young people but cited attitudes of entitlement in their upbringing. The importance of sacrificial love had come up earlier in the day when Dr. Dorothy Cotton said, and I so agreed, that change occurs when new prophets emerge. Thus, we should refrain from so glorifying those of that past that we overlook those in this age who are called to lead.
We need leaders and prophets, and, just as Dr. King did not “fall out of the sky,” neither will today’s leaders.
I thought of the thrust of vocations in the Church, and the need for sacrificial love is precisely the message needed for future priests, deacons, those in consecrated life, and men and women called to holy matrimony. When the U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral on Marriage (Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan) was being prepared some five years ago, focus groups uncovered the same challenge. While young people admired the sacrificial love of Jesus, they did so from a clear distance; the heroic, according to the study, was not attracting them.
Pope Francis, with his simple and courageous leadership, is, hopefully, inspiring our church and culture with the example of St. Francis of Assisi, that bold prophet whose actions were clearly loving and sacrificial.
The other theme was the dignity of all human persons, who deserve to lead productive lives, and the justice needed to be sure that racial barriers never stand in the way. Here is a link to Dr. King’s letter from the Birmingham Jail (http://christianchurchestogether.org.s34286.gridserver.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/letterfrombirmingham_wwcw.pdf) as well as the text of my speech from the event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter (www.archlou.org/2013/04/14/14817/).
We would do well to take a cue from Dr. King as we seek justice in every age. He located the basis for justice in the eternal and natural law, which still remains true to this day.
His letter from the Birmingham Jail, both faith-filled and philosophically solid, made the case for non-violent actions to oppose racism in his day. Quoting from St. Thomas Aquinas, he speaks of the unjust law as “the human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law” and so is, as Dr. King says, “out of harmony with the moral law.”
As we seek justice so that each and every person might be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of skin, we also are aware of new challenges to justice. We seek to protect the dignity of every person as a child of God from the moment of conception to natural death and the dignity of marriage. As we seek to promote these values, we draw on the same time-honored principles that guided Dr. King.
As we contemplate his non-violent response and remember the bombing in Kelly Ingram Park, we again mourn another terrible and senseless act of violence, this time in Boston. Please join me in keeping all of the victims, families, first responders, and law enforcement officers in your prayers.
During this Easter season, we are in good company, for we hear in the Acts of the Apostles of the words and actions of St. Peter and the first apostles, whose legacy continues to this age in Dr. King’s letter.
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