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Standards and Practices
The canon, that is, the list of all the works that would eventually be included in the Bible, was closed by the end of the fourth century. By that time, Christians throughout the world largely agreed on which books would be in the Bible, and which would not. Some of the more controversial books, like Revelation and the Epistle of Jude were in, and some others, like the Shepherd of Hermes, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache, were not. Almost all of the books that made it in were written before the year 150.
There are a few exceptions and odd blips in history and various regional churches, like the Ethiopian Maccabees or Psalm 151 in the Eastern Orthodox, but for most Christians in the Eastern and Western traditions, the Bible was a fixed document from sometime in the middle to late 4th century. Nothing would be added or subtracted from it from that point forward. The Biblical canon, for all intents and purposes, is closed.
But if it were reopened, if for some reason Christians the world over decided that there are more writings through which God was speaking that deserved the status of Scripture, I would campaign very aggressively for the inclusion of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I think it may be one of the most important documents for Christians to read that is not in the Bible, and I have occasionally contemplated becoming a sort of Gideon for its inclusion. Bringing copies of it with me to hotels and gluing them into the blank pages that are always in the back for some reason. In case there is anyone from the Committee on Ministry here, or someone who wants to bring me up on charges, I’m mostly joking. Mostly.
The reason I think that the Letter is one of the most important things that Christians can read is that it does exactly what Paul’s letters do for us. If you have never read it in its entirety, you should. It is a far better sermon than I will give today. It’s a letter itself, just like Paul’s. And it is written to a specific group of people in a specific time. But like Paul’s letters it transcends the specific situation. In the application of God’s truth to that particular situation, we see how to apply God’s truth in our own situations.
Here’s what was going on: Dr. King had been arrested on Good Friday 1963 for participating in demonstrations in Birmingham that had recently been banned.” On that same day, an open letter by a group of white clergyman had been published in the local newspaper called “A Call for Unity.” “A Call for Unity” accused Dr. King of being an outsider who came to incite violence. The clergymen said that change was necessary, but called the current demonstrations “unwise and untimely.” When a copy of the paper was smuggled into Dr. King in his jail cell, he began writing his response, which became the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
In response to the accusation that he was an outsider, he noted that he’d been invited by the Birmingham leaders to be a part of their work. And then he says that he is here because injustice is here, and just like the prophets of old, he is compelled to bring the gospel beyond his own hometown. “Injustice anywhere,” he says famously, “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.” As Christians, we would do well to remember that inescapable network of mutuality, and how all of us are harmed by the cruel injustices heaped upon God’s children.
In response to the criticism that the demonstrations were “unwise and untimely,” he explains the timing of the actions, and the many attempts that had been made to negotiate in Birmingham, but were met with bad faith. He declares that they have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. He reminds his critics that in the history of the African American struggle, “’Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”
In his letter, Dr. King shares two things that I think will be the key to what the future will look like for Christians, if we’re going to have a future. They parallel the lesson we read from the book of Luke.
In our lesson from Luke we read of the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. The wicked judge has no interest in hearing the widow’s petition. He ignores her time and time again. But she keeps on coming. She tirelessly, persistently demands his attention. Eventually he finally grants her justice, not because he cares one whit about her, but because she has made it work to deny her justice. She has taken her problem, and made it into his problem. In many ways this was the intent of the nonviolent Civil Rights movement. To bring their plight to light in such a way that it could not be denied.
Dr. King details much of the long hard work that occurred before the demonstrations began, and spoke of success only as the result of determined long-term pressure. “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability” he wrote; “it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” The moral arc of the universe might bend towards justice, but it only bends that way if we are the ones doing the bending. The world does not change because we want it to or because we hope it will, but because of the committed persistence of those who demand it. This persistence, the persistence of the widow and the persistence of the Civil Rights movement, must inform and shape Christian witness in the coming era.
Jesus’ second parable talks about the importance of self-criticism in seeking righteousness. Without self-criticism, righteousness becomes self-righteousness. We see that in the Pharisee. He came into the Temple to congratulate himself. The tax collector, on the other hand, came into the Temple to put his trust in the mercy of God. In doing so, he acknowledged his failures, and challenged himself to do better. Presbyterians practice this every week. Every week we follow in the footsteps of the tax collector. We humbly consider what we have done wrong, and we try to do better. It keeps us aware that we are relying on the grace of God. We confess because we would much rather be good than feel good about ourselves. At its heart, that is a counter-cultural act.
In his Letter, Dr. King talks about self-purification as one of the necessary precursors to any direct action campaign. In this case, it meant making sure that all participants were fully prepared to receive violence and not return it. In order for their protest to be successful, protesters’ conduct must be unimpeachable, lest a critique of their methods derail their message. In order to pursue righteousness in the world with any success we must pursue righteousness with equal vigor in ourselves. We have to ask ourselves how we contribute to the injustices that occur around the world, whether directly or through inaction. And we have to give harsh critiques of ourselves and how we might be participating and condoning harm without intending to.
The Prophet Micah tells us that following the Lord is a simple process. “What does the Lord, require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” But it is not easy. Dr. King’s words and work provide modern examples of the biblical witness that Scripture has given to us. Persistence is the key to obtaining justice in a world that longs to deny it. We cannot be justified in our own actions without first looking at our own selves to ensure that our actions are consistent with our goals, and that we are ready for what the task will demand of us.
Dr. King’s Letter is a powerful reminder that although the canon is closed, God is still speaking today. God has spoken to and through faithful Christians the world over, who passionately pursue God’s agenda. And God speaks to us and through us today, when put our hearts and minds into the work of radical grace for the children of the world. For as he put it in his letter, “the time is always ripe to do what is right.” If we’re actually going to purge ourselves of the demons that keep coming up over and over again….
The fundamental questions should be: Where have I not spoken up? Where have I spoken up but failed to act?
If you are the type to put up political things on your facebook feed, go back through them, and say, “Who is here, and who is missing?” If you’ve called your congress person, ask yourself what issues were a big enough deal for you to take action? On what issues did you mean to call but never get around to it?
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God? Persistance and self-reflection are what is required in order to do any of those things.
Because I think it’s the key to what the future must look like for Christians, if we’re going to have a future.
 “Negroes To Defy Ban”. The Tuscaloosa News. 145 (101). April 11, 1963. p. 21. Accessed January 13th, 2017. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=YREdAAAAIBAJ&sjid=8poEAAAAIBAJ&pg=7376,1391871