Fifty-nine years ago, on April 16, 1962, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, began writing his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Though directed at eight Alabama clergy who were considered moderate religious leaders, I submit that on the eve of its 60th anniversary, this letter could have been written to all contemporary moderate, religious, political and grassroots leaders. Moreover, as a blueprint for spiritual resistance and the decolonization of Christianity, King’s epic response still reverberates throughout the United “Thief-dom” of America!
In the words of Dr. King, “…it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say wait. But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of … brothers (and sisters) smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society…” Given the inextricable tie between faith, race and the American experience, resurrection can provide both intersection and instruction for complete liberation.
Emanating from a crucible of cacerality, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” can provide relevant and theologically-sound perspective on how we can become a people of the resurrection in a world enveloped by the Good Friday experiences of the war economy, religious nationalism, environmental degradation and racial capitalism. This is essential if we are to embrace and extend a liberatory and life-giving, vital and victorious faith that continues to be threatened by the theology of White supremacy and colonized Christianity. How we understand and utilize the power of resurrection will determine how we will analyze the systems and schemes that produce and promote Good-Friday-conditions for families, communities, cities, and countries.
In his letter to the church at Corinth, a resurrected and recalculated Paul provides the following perspective, “If corpses cannot be raised, then Christ wasn’t, because he was indeed dead. And if Christ were not raised, then all you’re doing is wandering about in the dark, as lost as ever. It is even worse for those who died hoping in Christ and resurrection, because they’re already in their graves. If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years, we’re a pretty sorry lot. But the truth is that Christ has been raised up, the first in a long legacy of those who are going to leave the cemeteries” (1 Corinthians 15:17-20 Message Translation).
In her song, “Never Lost,” CeCe Winans declares the intention, direction, and destination of departures from cemeteries with these words, “You are showing up at the tomb of every Lazarus. Your voice us calling (me/us) out.”
If the United “Thief-dom” of America is Lazarus, how can we be facilitators and become transporters of the risen Christ to transcend tombs by showing up for radical solidarity and salvific revolution.
Resurrection is a call to spiritual resistance and moral reimagination! “There comes a time,” Dr. King writes, “when the cup of endurance runs over, and (people) are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair…. when you are hurried by day and haunted by night by (systems that render you invisible and insignificant), living constantly at tip-toe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness.’”
Under the direction of resurrection, Dr. King provides an “empty-tomb-call-out” into a “good-Friday-lockdown” as he continues, “…there comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and (people) are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair.”
This resurrection call to spiritual resistance and moral reimagination then and now, is specifically directed to all religious, political and grassroots moderates “…who (are) more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action” who paternistically feels that he (or she) can set the timetable for another person’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the (dehumanized and marginalized) to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’”
Oppression cannot be moderated by those who have bought into and benefit from the system. Oppressions must be nihilated! The prevailing social and political path of incrementalism continues to defer dreams and delay long overdue substantive systemic change. To paraphrase Archbishop Desmond Tutu, if an elephant has its foot on a mouse, and your disposition is incrementalism, the mouse will not appreciate your prolonged approach that continues to benefit the oppressor.
If you, your family, community, and country feel like Lazarus, the resurrected Christ is prepared and in position to show up at your tomb and CALL YOU OUT!! Despite shattered dreams of the past, the promise, power and purpose of resurrection enable us to face our “Still I rise” sons and daughters, amplify voices and visions that will plunge them “Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear…Bringing the gifts that (their) ancestors gave…” to be and become…“the dream and the hope of the slave.”
Let us remain strong in a bold faith without borders that will manifest truth in communities caught in the grip of fear, cynicism and fatalism, deception, denial and delusion. Resurrection is an invitation to restoration! As a people of the resurrection, let us see and celebrate one another’s humanity and dignity by becoming the silver lining circling the dark clouds of racial, social and economic injustice.
I am persuaded that Dr. King wrote this letter and lived his life according to the first words the risen Christ spoke to the women on that first resurrection, “FEAR NOT!” When we decolonize the theology of White supremacy, resurrection can transform the United “Thief-dom” of America into the United “Kin-dom” of America.
It’s CALL-OUT time, ya’ll!! He has never lost a battle…and I know that I know that I know, the resurrected Christ never will. BECOME a people of the resurrection in our quest to organize, mobilize and realize God’s beloved world house. Let us continue to boldly connect with the long legacy of those who left the cemeteries and march towards planetary liberation.
Pastor Kelvin Sauls lives at the intersection of South Los Angeles and South Africa. He is a catalytic faith-rooted community organizer in the Pan-African and Black Liberation traditions. He is the host of the “Faith Without Borders” podcast, a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Institute in Racial Equity, a member of Clergy for Black Lives and Co-founder of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (USA) and Beloved Community Coalition (South Africa)