Direct Action as a Last Step

Every year our country celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And every year I take a few minutes to sit down and read his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

The Letter reads like an epistle. Hard and firm and clear with fits and starts of soaring language. I find it moves my heart and my feet.

Every year, something different jumps out to me and catches my attention.

[See past posts here and here and here and here and here]

This year, it was this sentence:
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. 
Dr. King had been arrested and was considered a disturber of the peace. A group of pastors and rabbis had written against him in the newspaper, labeling him an outside agitator and a troublemaker. They urged patience. They urged conversation.

But the movement Dr. King was leading had started protests and boycotts and sit-ins. There was violence. Dogs set on protestors. Fire hoses. Billy clubs. It was disturbing. That was the point.

Dr. King and the non-violent protestors has chosen to "present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community." The dogs and fire hoses and clubs combined with the bodies of the protestors to spark compassion and a desire for change in those who witnessed it.

I love this glimpse into Dr. King's process. Did you notice it in that quote?

  1. Collection of facts to determine whether injustices exist
  2. Negotiation
  3. Self purification
  4. Direct action
I can't help but think about the way evangelical Christians engage in politics today. We jostle over power and influence. We try to elect the right people. We talk about "taking our country back." Action. Action. Action.

I wonder what we lose in jumping straight to action.

Action without self purification comes with a dreadful cost. The action can't be sustained and the actors find themselves jumping from issue to issue. The action is too easily co-opted and the actors find themselves wholly committed to parties with which they only partially agree. The action collapses as lead actors are picked off one by one by moral and ethical failure.

Action without negotiation makes all kinds of false assumptions about the opposition. The actors begin fighting ghosts and straw men. Wins become illusory, since the things that were taken would have been freely given. Demonization of the opposition makes it impossible to cease firing and to live at peace with each other.

And action without facts? That leads to persecution complexes. And few things are more present in the evangelical Christian community than a fear of persecution. Sure, we make up most of the population. And sure, we hold most of the positions of power in society. And sure, we've been in places of power and influence for generations. But we're so afraid. And our fear is not fueled by facts but by possibilities.

I wonder what would happen if we spent more time collecting facts, negotiating and purifying ourselves. Perhaps these are what're missing in our attempts to transform and redeem culture. Perhaps we need to add more to our action.

I'm not saying that direct action isn't necessary. I deeply admire Dr. King and his courageous steps of faith and resistance. But I wonder if his actions would be admirable if all he did was act.

Please, take a few minutes today to check out Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

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