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Greg's Weekly Word: "mutual"

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly affects all indirectly.

These words come from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," written from (you guessed it!) a jail in Birmingham after he was arrested for his participation in and leadership of the civil rights efforts in the city. He is responding to seven of Birmingham's white clergy who criticized the activities and protests of Dr. King and others as "unwise and untimely," calling him and others "outside agitators."


(I recommend you read the entirety of the letter. I know it's long but it is well worth every bit - both convicting and inspiring.)


But back to mutuality...


A little research on the word shows that it comes from a root that means, "to change, go, move." Mutuality means action! It means we move our hands and our feet to do the work of Christ - the work of mercy and equality, compassion and justice. It means we go through this world living in the way of Christ, until this world is changed - until every low place is lifted up and every mountain made low...until the rough places become a plain, and the crooked places straight...until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream...until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God...until we, too, are changed, into the people Christ calls us to be.


Which brings me back to Dr. King's letter...


It would have been all too easy for those seven clergymen (all men, because...well, patriarchy) to get defensive and dismiss King's plea. That may have been what I would have done. And maybe six of them did. But I do know that at least one of them didn't.*


Rev. Earl Stallings was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Birmingham, and one of the clergy who sent the "Call to Unity" to Dr. King, urging him to stay away from the city and accept gradual change. But after King's arrest, Rev. Stallings felt a deep sense of regret about his part in the "Call to Unity" and his hesitation to join in the civil rights work. And he repented and responded. The next Sunday - Easter Sunday - he was the only one of those white clergy to follow through on a pledge to open the doors of the church to all people, including Black worshipers. It may not seem like much, but it led to a walkout of half the white worshipers, and led to threats from the larger community. Ultimately, though, his action (and the constructive tension it created in the church) led to Winifred and Twila Bryant - a mother and daughter who were Black - to request membership at First Baptist several years later. Their membership was voted down, which prompted 250 people to leave the church and start something new - Baptist Church of the Covenant, which celebrates fifty years as one of the leading progressive, justice-seeking Baptist churches in the South.


As we remember the life and legacy of Dr. King, and particularly reflect on these words about our mutuality in the work of Christ, it's good to remember that such mutuality calls us to go beyond our comfort and complicity...to move and take action in the service of waging peace and working for justice...and to change, to be transformed. And hopefully, to create something new and transform our world.


And it's good to remember that there are some who did. So perhaps we can, too - not just with words or feelings, but with our mutual action.




- GJD



*thanks to my dear friend, Alan Sherouse, for sharing this story on his Facebook page

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