Letter from a Birmingham Jail

A cou­ple of years ago, I decid­ed to read Mar­tin Luther King Jr.‘s “Let­ter from a Birm­ing­ham Jail” on the MLK Day, as I have the day off from work. The fed­er­al hol­i­day was intend­ed to be a day or ser­vice, but per­haps we can at least start with learn­ing about the man and his beliefs through his most famous let­ter. I can’t imag­ine that any­one could read this let­ter and not come away changed. It is tru­ly one of the finest writ­ings I’ve ever read.

It is a rather long let­ter (as he even admits to near in its clos­ing). So, if you pre­fer to spare the hour with a read­ing, then this video has you cov­ered. The first four min­utes are a read­ing of the let­ter by a group of cler­gy­men that prompt­ed King’s response. This embed­ded video starts after that.

I felt com­pelled to share this as dur­ing our par­en­t’s Sun­day school class yes­ter­day, one per­son raised the ques­tion “Why does this per­son even have a hol­i­day? He was­n’t the only civ­il rights leader.” I choose to give him the ben­e­fit of the doubt that he was rais­ing the ques­tion in good faith (the talk imme­di­ate­ly changed to a slight­ly dif­fer­ent sub­ject, as these group con­ver­sa­tions often do). He stat­ed that his chil­dren and oth­ers had asked it, and I believe he was say­ing this so he could jus­ti­fy that the MLK Day hol­i­day was because Mar­tin Luther King Jr was a great Amer­i­can and civ­il rights leader.

That is true, and even in his brief life­time (I’m now two years old­er than he was when he was killed), he became a sym­bol for a move­ment much greater than him­self1. He was a bril­liant and coura­geous leader who believed in the best of the Chris­t­ian church and of Amer­i­ca. This let­ter is strong evi­dence of these things. So the hol­i­day isn’t just a memo­r­i­al to his ser­vice, but I believe to all of what he rep­re­sent­ed. Its to remind us of the abil­i­ty of peo­ple in this nation to be able to move moun­tains. Its to remind us that com­pla­cen­cy and the desire to main­tain order is not an Amer­i­can virtue, but the antithe­sis of what Amer­i­ca was found­ed on. Amer­i­ca can always be a bet­ter place for all and no one else is going to come do that hard work for us. Some of us will have to give up some priv­i­lege. Some of us will lose time and mon­ey to the work. Some peo­ple have giv­en so much more, as King risked and ulti­mate lost his life in doing his work.

So that’s why we have a hol­i­day. Not because of what Kind did, or at least not entire­ly because of it. Also, to remind us of what we have left to do. We have to do it not because we owe it to King’s mem­o­ry, but because we owe it to every last Amer­i­can. It’s pre­cise­ly what it means to be American.

  1. I’m bas­ing a great deal of this state­ment on Rep. John Lewis’ March graph­ic nov­els, which are an amaz­ing read, too. []

2006: Year of the Post-Apocolypse

Appar­ent­ly, the Apoc­olypse came some­time before 2006 [Ed: Yes, of course. It was the day John Ker­ry lost to George Bush. Zing.]. I know this because in the first few months of 2007, I watched three of the most amaz­ing post-apoc­a­lypse films I’ve ever seen and they were all from the past year1.

V for Vendetta

The Wachows­ki broth­er’s V for Vendetta

The Wachows­ki broth­ers haven’t real­ly done much since the first Matrix film, and I’m includ­ing the lat­ter 2/3rds of the tril­o­gy in ‘not much’ (and, yes, they were above aver­age sci-fi films but not of the same cal­iber as the first). How­ev­er, last year’s V For Vendet­ta was a stun­ning polit­i­cal thriller. Sci­ence fic­tion in name only, just as most all great sci-fi is, this film warns about how the dif­fer­ence between a state gripped with fear for its secu­ri­ty and a fas­cist state is real­ly only one of time. The film’s bold­ness goes well beyond just harsh cri­tiques of mod­ern-day polit­i­cal rhetoric (though the sto­ry­line was writ­ten in the 80’s). The treat­ment of the two lead char­ac­ters: a hero who’s face we are nev­er shown and a love­ly hero­ine who has her head shaved are not com­mon Hol­ly­wood treat­ments (think: shirt­less mus­cle-men and flaw­less beau­ties, despite rather harsh cir­cum­stances that would­n’t war­rant either).

Sci­ence fic­tion is the home of the dystopia sto­ry­line and like the best of them2, this world is ter­ri­fy­ing main­ly because of it’s sim­i­lar­i­ties to our own rather than its dif­fer­ences. Also, V is a beau­ti­ful film and does­n’t beat the audi­ence over the head with either spe­cial effects or polit­i­cal state­ment. How­ev­er, both are a strong pres­ence in the film. It left me with the both feel­ings of despair and hope. Despair that peo­ple in my coun­try just might be afraid enough to let this sort of thing hap­pen but hope that most of us are smart enough to see through such the­ater. Also, hope because the sto­ry takes place in Britain and Amer­i­cans aren’t so polite about being bul­lied from the get-go.


Mike Judge’s Idioc­ra­cy

Mike Judge’s love-it-or-hate-it sto­ry does­n’t have atom­ic bomb wield­ing ter­ror­ists destroy­ing the world we know. Rather, peo­ple destroy it by tak­ing a path toward stu­pid­i­ty. We de-evolve into a race of idiots. It’s an apoc­a­lypse 500 years in the making.

I per­son­al­ly loved this film, despite the fact that I had an over­whelm­ing sense of depres­sion after watch­ing it. While I laughed at much of the straight-faced humor pre­sent­ed, it was more like the laugh of a per­son caught in a hope­less sit­u­a­tion, giv­ing up on any hope of chang­ing the future and reduced to laugh at the ridicu­lous­ness of it. Mod­ern trag­ic com­e­dy, although I thought that was sup­posed to have a hap­py end­ing (the film does, unless you live in mod­ern times…).

The design of the film was­n’t one of beau­ty. How­ev­er, that was essen­tial­ly the point. Beau­ty is gone and is replaced not with the gray despair of most dystopias. No, this is much more like the dystopia of Brave New World, where only a few peo­ple real­ize that they have much to unhap­py about. Here, in Idioc­ra­cy, we have some­thing far worse: adver­tis­ing. The mate­ri­al­is­tic ten­den­cies of much of today’s pop­u­lar cul­ture have col­lid­ed with mass adver­tis­ing such that if you can see it, it’s fair game for brand­ing. Fur­ther degra­da­tion of soci­ety comes in vir­tu­al­ly ever aspect of life: enter­tain­ment, health care, pol­i­tics, edu­ca­tion, the legal sys­tem, food, and even speech. We’ve all been in an atmos­phere things like ini­tia­tive, intel­li­gence, and car­ing were shunned. It was called High School. Imag­ine a world in which every­one behaves just like the back row of your high school alge­bra class.

Ter­ri­fy­ing. Also, genius polit­i­cal and social satire.

Children of Men

Alfon­so Cuarón’s Chil­dren of Men

Here’s a film that would have made per­fect sense and been almost as enjoy­able with­out any sound, in my opin­ion. While the sto­ry was grip­ping (based loose­ly on the nov­el writ­ten by P.D. James), it is Cuaron’s visu­al style that tells so much sto­ry. Long, incred­i­bly long, impos­si­bly long shots span min­utes of the sto­ry cre­at­ing a sense of dra­ma that is unre­al. The sense of being in the sto­ry is almost over­whelm­ing at times3. I can’t even quite describe it as doc­u­men­tary style. It’s more like being right in the scenes and not being able to close your eyes to blink for even a moment. It is intense and amaz­ing to watch.

The film is steeped with alle­go­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly Chris­t­ian sto­ries and themes. The film opened on Christ­mas Day last year and can eas­i­ly be described as a mod­ern day tale of Joseph and Mary. How­ev­er, most peo­ple don’t cel­e­brate Christ­mas with dystopi­an tales of the pos­si­ble end of human­i­ty; result­ing in the film bomb­ing at the box office. How­ev­er, the film has gained a great deal of crit­i­cal acclaim and the DVD release might as well have been its debut, so don’t feel bad if you missed it. It’s also just as well, as you might want to watch it a cou­ple of times just to catch all those amaz­ing long-shot scenes and much of the imagery, both present and implied.

Sci­ence fic­tion is the home of the dystopi­an sto­ry. Through a fabled look at the future, we can make polit­i­cal and social com­men­tary on the present and the past. The dis­arm­ing nature of sci­ence fic­tion allows us to do so in a way that is non-threat­en­ing but also allows us to explore the “what if” sce­nario with­out aban­don. This is why I love sci­ence fic­tion so much and why the dystopi­an sto­ry­line is my favorite in the that genre. When done right, the ‘mag­ic black box device’ or ‘sin­gu­lar event that changed man’ becomes just a prop to allow the writ­ers, direc­tors, and actors to explore the human con­di­tion in a way we can’t do in the here and now. It may seem iron­ic that the genre that is the home of dis­tant worlds in oth­er galax­ies and alien life forms is the one that allows us to most close­ly exam­ine our home and what it means to be human; that look­ing off into the future gives us the per­fect mir­ror for today. How­ev­er, in the great sto­ries in sci­ence fic­tion, that is exact­ly the point.

Laser blasters, light sabers, slimy bug eyed mon­sters, and giant robots are just real­ly cool icing on the cake.

  1. We don’t get out to the cin­e­ma much these days, so we just wait until every­thing comes out on DVD and rent it via Net­flix. I could write end­less­ly on why this is bet­ter than going to the movies, but that will have to be anoth­er post. []
  2. 1984 is prob­a­bly the most famous of this genre and inci­den­tal­ly, the hero of that tale was por­trayed by John Hurt in a film adap­ta­tion. Hurt is re-cast as the total­i­tar­i­an in V, mov­ing from lit­tle man to giant head via video screen. []
  3. Unless you are Angela, who has slept through some pret­ty great films and this was no dif­fer­ent. []

Following Scientists

Some­times I feel gen­uine­ly guilty that the part of a ser­mon that sticks with me the most is one that I sim­ply find incom­pat­i­ble with what I feel to be right (and often, not even the gist of the ser­mon, as you’ll see here). Now, I am prob­a­bly towards the oppo­site end of the Pres­by­ter­ian (PCUSA) spec­trum from Dr. Good­loe and that’s fine; he being quite a bit more con­ser­v­a­tive where as I am fair­ly lib­er­al. I don’t expect every­one in our large denom­i­na­tion, nor even our con­gre­ga­tion, to agree with me let alone it’s lead­ers. To the con­trary, the diverse­ness of both Pres­by­te­ri­ans and GCPC are one of things I find most appeal­ing about them.

As Jim teach­es through var­i­ous books of the Bible (New Tes­ta­ment, in par­tic­u­lar), yes­ter­day brought us to John again. The par­tic­u­lar ser­mon cen­tered around the ver­sus where-in some of John’s fol­low­ers wor­ry about how many are going to fol­low Jesus instead (and why John is hap­py about that). How­ev­er, one thing about Jim’s ser­mon yes­ter­day, titled “All Are Going to Him!” [.pdf] stood out to me and I’ve not been able to get it out of my head since (empha­sis & foot­note mine):

[H]ow shall we respond to Jesus Christ? We shall be the dis­ci­ples of Jesus Christ or we shall fol­low anoth­er. There is no oth­er choice. Will it be Jesus, or will it be Moses, Mohammed, Bud­dha, Freud, Niet­zsche, Dar­win, Marx, Hitler, Sagan1, or Dawkins? Whom shall we fol­low? We shall receive the bap­tism of Jesus Christ or we shall refuse it. There is no half-way. We shall go to Jesus Christ or we shall run away and go to anoth­er. No one remains unaffiliated. 

Now, I don’t think that the men­tion­ing of a num­ber of sci­en­tists (in addi­tion to an econ­o­mist and bru­tal dic­ta­tor) along side a hand­ful of prophets was meant to both­er me or any­one, but it unfor­tu­nate­ly did. It both­ered me for a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent, although pos­si­bly relat­ed reasons.

First, it is unfair to char­ac­ter­ize sci­ence, phi­los­o­phy and pol­i­tics as some­thing to be fol­lowed as a dis­ci­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly in this con­text. To be sure, many of the thinkers list­ed have been seen as con­tro­ver­sial to Chris­tians and, to vary­ing degrees, counter to its under­stood teach­ings (at least to some at the time). Freud, Niet­zsche, and for this point, Marx while not study­ing nature were attempt­ing to study and under­stand human­i­ty. The held rev­o­lu­tion­ary posi­tions, many of which are still debat­ed today. How­ev­er, they were nev­er wor­shiped (to my knowl­edge) and no one ever relied on them for redemp­tion. Fur­ther, they were thinkers with many ideas and accept­ing one of those notions does not require one to accept them all. One could agree that Freud was entire­ly cor­rect in approach to psy­chother­a­py and still reject his phi­los­o­phy or vice versa.

As for Hitler, sure­ly fol­low­ing his beliefs ran counter to the teach­ings of Christ and fur­ther the Nazi world cer­tain­ly bor­dered on being a cult if any polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy ever did2. How­ev­er, Hitler was not the head of any reli­gion but of a polit­i­cal par­ty. Hav­ing many fol­low­ers, no mat­ter how despi­ca­ble and evil it and it’s ethos was, did­n’t make it a reli­gion any­more than fol­low­ing Churchill, Kennedy, or Reagen were reli­gions. A cult of per­son­al­i­ty is sim­ply not a reli­gion, cer­tain­ly not when we are gen­uine­ly dis­cussing theology.

Some sci­en­tists do cer­tain­ly have their own cult of per­son­al­i­ty and cer­tain­ly Dar­win, Sagan and Dawkins made this list for that. But they are not a reli­gion to be fol­lowed, either, any more than a human phi­los­o­phy or a polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy is and per­haps even less so. Sci­ence does not hope to gov­ern or to dic­tate the acts of men. In gen­er­al, it only seeks to uncov­er that which human­i­ty does not gov­ern. Just because I agree that F = m·a does not make me a dis­ci­ple of New­ton, but rather a per­son who pre­scribes to a the­o­ry of phys­i­cal mechan­ics. Fur­ther, just because some oth­er sci­en­tist has a the­o­ry that seems con­trary to one’s faith does not make any­one who agrees with that con­tro­ver­sial the­o­ry a dis­ci­ple of that individual.

That being said, I come to my sec­ond issue. I sup­pose Dawkins more like­ly in this list for his pro-athe­ist, anti-orga­nized reli­gion rhetoric as much as his evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy teach­ings. To that end, this is why I find Dr. Good­loe’s state­ment just as oppos­able as I do Dawkins’. Sci­ence and reli­gion are not in some sort of eter­nal con­flict strug­gling for our minds and will. We do not decide between them. Sci­ence is, at it’s core the study of the nat­ur­al world. If one believes in Christ and a God, then one believes that God made that world. The study of God’s cre­ation is, in essence, anal­o­gous to the study of God’s word, but not in oppo­si­tion to it. Of course, sci­en­tists may be wrong. So might the­olo­gians, cor­rect? How­ev­er, unlike the­olo­gians, empir­i­cal evi­dence will sup­port or deny the sci­en­tist. Fur­ther evi­dence for or against any the­olo­gian, pos­si­bly by def­i­n­i­tion, can­not be attained in this world.

Sci­ence does not deny Christ and I find it odd that any­one would argue that being a dis­ci­ple of Christ requires one to dis­avow sci­ence (or any sin­gle sci­en­tist). I don’t know that this was Jim’s intent, but cer­tain­ly his unfor­tu­nate choice of peo­ple struck a chord with me (a dis­so­nant one, any­way). I do see the the­o­log­i­cal val­ue in argu­ing that one must choose one, and only one, sav­ior. How­ev­er, it is impor­tant to not con­fuse things that can­not and are not sav­iors with those that to some would be. To a Chris­t­ian, by def­i­n­i­tion, there is no alter­na­tive but Christ. For oth­ers who do not know, still seek, or believe in anoth­er, they too can still under­stand the the­o­log­i­cal basis of the ulti­ma­tum. For the athe­ist, is a triv­ial choice as they believe in no sav­ior. How­ev­er, I can­not help but find it dis­hon­est of us to char­ac­ter­ize those who would study God’s nat­ur­al won­ders as being against Christ.

I don’t mean to be argu­men­ta­tive with Dr. Good­loe as first of all, this was not the main point of his ser­mon and sec­ond­ly, I think the point he was get­ting at is valid from a the­o­log­i­cal stand­point. I just sim­ply take issue with the cho­sen exam­ples as it fur­thers what is, to me any­way, a false choice. I do not wish to make some sort of exam­ple of my min­is­ter and per­son­al­ly, I find Dr. Dawkins’ state­ments to be much more egre­gious in this area and the corol­lary of this post holds true for the so-called New Athe­ists as well. It’s just that hear­ing this from some­one clos­er yes­ter­day made me moti­vat­ed enough to write on it.

  1. When I heard this, I actu­al­ly thought Jim said “Satan” which real­ly shocked me. Main­ly, because Satan isn’t real­ly some­thing Pres­by­te­ri­ans min­is­ters preach a great deal on and fur­ther it real­ly seemed odd on this list. Carl Sagan, no mat­ter how I feel that he does­n’t deserve to be on this list, either, makes more sense giv­en the con­text of Jim’s ser­mon. []
  2. This holds true for any cur­rent fas­cism as well. How­ev­er, as Hitler was the exam­ple I’ll stick to the Nazi par­ty of the 30’s and 40’s. []