[read the Letter here: Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.]
Every year I read the Letter and every year something else jumps out to me.
This year, I'm fascinated by Dr. King's usage of insider/outsider language in his conversation about the marches that took place in Birmingham.
His critics called him an "outside agitator." And here is a small sample of his response:
I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against "outsiders coming in." I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere 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. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
Dr. King draws on three themes to explain his presence: his ties to the community, the need for outsiders, and the myth of outsiders. These three themes roll throughout the Letter, challenging the story being told about the civil rights movement and about the church.
Ties to the community (I am an inside outsider)
Dr. King points out that he was invited to protest. He points out that his organization has ties to organizations in Birmingham. And in a piece of entangling alliances logic, makes the case for his presence in Alabama.
These entangling alliances (the SCLC with local movements) echo a deeper entanglement that Dr. King believes should compel white churches to join the civil rights cause. If Dr. King has ties to the oppressed men and women in Birmingham because of an organizational affiliation, how much more should the local white churches have ties to their oppressed neighbors?
When an outsider identifies himself with an oppressed people, something powerful happens. Walls collapse. Spotlights shifts. Change begins to roll.
In so many ways, this is what Jesus Christ has done for humanity. An outside agitator, he linked arms with us, for our salvation and our good.
How can we go and do likewise?
The need for outsiders (Outsiders are good)
Comparing himself to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Paul and even Jesus, Dr. King explains his presence by pointing to the missional perspective an outsider can bring. When a community is diseased and deceived, only an outsider can bring healing and enlightenment.
Outsiders, whether crossing state lines or denominational barriers or time horizons can speak prophetically to communities in bondage, whether that bondage is a ethnic bondage of oppressive segregation or a bondage of blindness that keeps us from seeing the sinfulness of the status quo.
It is altogether fitting and proper that salvation should come from outside.
What is our attitude toward outsiders? Are we open to hearing their voices?
The myth of outsiders (No man is an island)
Though he never quotes Donne, the interrelatedness theme rings throughout the Letter. Outsiders cannot just mind their own business because what happens here matters everywhere.
In our age of globalization and the resultant moves toward hyper-localism, the truth of the interrelatedness of communities cannot be forgotten by the church. The church is a universal and global body - expressed locally to be sure - and as such must not believe that local action is anathema to global concern.
As members of God's church, we are always and never outsiders. This tension is nearly unbearable. When we see sin, we want to distance ourselves and claim outsider status, denying our culpability. When we see opportunity or privilege, we want to deny our outsider status and demand the rights of insiders. But Christ compels us on a different path, a path that sets rights aside and that bears the consequences of sin (deserved or not).
What would it look like for us to live as resident aliens in this world, never accepting that our outsider status means we should care?
If you get a chance today, check out Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail and ask yourself what an appropriate response would look like.