holy week, letter from a birmingham jail, and the gospel of Justice

There is a deep affinity between Rev. Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and the annual observance of Holy Week.

They are, of course, tied by the coincidence of time. The act of nonviolent resistance that landed Rev. Dr. King in the letter’s eponymous jail occurred on Good Friday. He spent that following Easter Sunday alone in an unlit, unfurnished cell. It was only on Monday that he was transferred to a new cell where he wrote the letter’s 7,000 words on scraps of paper and in the margins of newspapers.

The finished document is nothing short of a gospel tailor-made for our time: called into being by King the prophet, grounded in God by King the theologian, and shaped by King the servant of Justice.

What makes the letter so prescient at Holy Week is not only the calendar date, but also the content. Like the Gospel, it affirms our mutuality and shared fate. It affirms our part, no matter how small, in shaping the Kin-dom of God – the Beloved Community. It asks us to reflect on our motives and our beliefs, and to challenge our blind acceptance of the way things are. And, above all, it is steeped in love – a love that is unconditional, that is sanctioned by God and is the true calling card of the Gospel.

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under these trees, not others

Community is ours for the making, an always-present happening, broken open to each other through a willingness to be vulnerable.

under these trees at Kline’s Run Park along the Susquehanna

“You have made us together, you have made us one and many, you have placed me here in the midst as witness, as awareness, and as joy. Here I am…You have made me a kind of center, but a center that is nowhere. And yet also I am ‘here,’ let us say I am ‘here’ under these trees, not others.”

– Thomas Merton

There’s an uncomfortable truth that I’ve struggled with for most of my life: I’ve been really lonely.

It’s a squirmy little truth because it manifests itself in some pretty mundane and unimaginative ways. Here are my top three:

  1. The mindless consumption of plugging in to the dream worlds of never-ending video and social media
  2. An easy rejection enabled by perfectionism – summarily dismissing participation because it doesn’t meet my poorly constructed and usually self-edifying standards
  3. The ugly exhaustion of isolation – not the active, renewing power of solitude, but the inactive, life-draining leech of alienation

And it certainly isn’t because I’ve been alone. For most of my adult life I have been surrounded by an amazing partner, wonderful colleagues and warm friends. The surprising thing about being lonely is that it doesn’t have so much to do with who is around me, but instead it’s about how I am participating in co-creating community with who is around me. Dorothy Day got it absolutely right:

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.”  (“The Final Word is Love,” The Catholic Worker, May 1980)

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a proportional response

Love is always the answer…but only when it sits in relationship with truth. 


a feast of proportionality at the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking on to Central Park

Public discourse at its best is rich with paradox but recently seems mostly littered with misunderstanding. Echo chambers resound wildly amplifying hurt and fear, both of which, I can say personally, are utterly warranted in this new political landscape. But how to hold the hurt and fear with the nearly impossible paradox that brings love and truth together? What is a proportional response?

“Truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy.”
– Warren W. Wiersbe

And there’s the rub. A truth untempered by love is violence, while love without truth is toothless. I’ve seen quite a few white folks floating Dr. King quotes on the internet, especially this one: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” That seems like an enlightened response, but I’m not sure if it’s completely proportional. I think it’s a great sentiment that makes folks feel good. I think in its original context, the quote is a powerful stand for peace and reconciliation. But reconciliation is about first confronting some ugly truths. The light makes all the dark places known, not just the ones we want to see.  Continue reading

shifting perception

“We should not be surprised or scandalized by the sinful and the tragic. Do what you can to be peace and to do justice, but never expect or demand perfection on this earth. It usually leads to a false moral outrage, a negative identity, intolerance, paranoia, and self-serving crusades against “the contaminating element,” instead of “becoming a new creation” ourselves.” – Richard Rohr

of prayer, love, and the touching of other worlds (Dostoevsky)


“My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world. Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds, still it would be easier for the birds, and for a child, and for any animal near you, if you yourself were more gracious than you are now, if only by a drop, still it would be easier.

“All is like an ocean, I say to you. Tormented by universal love, you, too, would then start praying to the birds, as if in a sort of ecstasy, and entreat them to forgive you your sin. Cherish this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to people.” – Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov

IMAGE: West Hills County Park, Long Island

“This pathology, which took me years to recognize, is my tendency to get so conflicted with the way people use power in institutions that I spend more time being angry at them than I spend on my real work.” – Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak