“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
— “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The words of challenge found in the Rev. Martin Luther King's “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” have inspired numerous people over the years, including two Oklahoma City clergymen.
Both the Rev. Bill Pruett and the Rev. Rick Thompson said King's letter to Birmingham's clergy resonate with them.
“I think it is one of the most powerful I've ever read,” Pruett, pastor of St. James Catholic Church, 4201 S McKinley, said, adding that his biblical foundation reverberates in much of King's writings and speeches. “He was fundamentally a Baptist preacher — speaking for him was preaching.”
However, the ministers, along with several other metro religious leaders, said King's ideas and writings are not just thought-provoking. The clergy said the slain civil rights leader's social justice concerns — rooted in biblical principles — are still relevant today and should inspire people to action.
“His message is more relevant today than it's ever been before,” Pruett said.
“It's startling that we can be so indifferent to other people. We've lost our sense of the common good.”
The Rev. A. Byron Coleman, senior pastor of Fifth Street Baptist Church, 801 NE 5, agreed.
“He (King) would be concerned not just about where we are in terms of racial justice issues and economic issues, but where we are on how we treat one another,” Coleman said. “We are more socially fragmented than ever before.”
Coleman, 42, said he graduated from Morehouse College in 1993 which King had attended years before. He said Morehouse students were taught that they had a responsibility to address the cares of the community — the black community and the community-at-large.
“If Dr. King were here today in 2013, on the one hand he would challenge the moral compass of our nations and on the other hand, he would challenge the moral compass of the black community,” Coleman said. “He would be concerned about the lack of resources in the black and Hispanic communities. He would be concerned about the lack of health care. He would be concerned about the gerrymandering in the black community. He would be concerned about how we treat each other.”
Vered Harris, rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel, 4901 N Pennsylvania, said King's quest for truth, equality and justice is still needed today.
“Every time I read the news, I see that we are a nation and a world struggling to reveal truth or to cover it up, to celebrate freedom or to squelch it, to promote equality or to hamper it,” she said. “Dr. King's message was the message of the prophets of the Bible: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free and to break every cruel chain (Isaiah 58:6).
Both Harris and Thompson, 52, senior pastor of Council Road Baptist Church, 2900 N Council Road in Bethany, said they were deeply touched and inspired by King's iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Thompson said he heard a recording of the speech while he was in seminary and he was brought to tears by the words King spoke. He said King's messages are timeless and relevant because he stood on moral principles. “He peacefully demonstrated in order to bring government in alignment with his interpretation of Biblical scripture,” Thompson said.
“That stand that he took is a long-standing stance in Christianity that goes all the way back to the apostles who stood before the Sanhedrin and said ‘we would rather obey the laws of God rather than man.'”
Harris said she did not have a formal religious education growing up and as a teenager “I didn't know if it was OK for a Jewish kid to be spiritually moved by Christian words.”
“I wondered if I was betraying my religion by finding prayer in the words of another's,” she said.
Harris said she learned later that King worked with Christians, Jews and people of other faiths to bring about social change. She said King's “Dream” speech remains one of the most inspiring sermons she has ever heard.
Like Pruett and Coleman, the Rev. George Young, senior pastor of Holy Temple Baptist Church, 1540 NE 50, said he thinks an integral part of King's messages — based on Scripture — was the idea of taking responsibility for oneself and helping to make the world a better place.
“That's always been my idea about what the practice of religious ought to be about: trying to create a sense of righteousness within ourselves that is demonstrated by the way we see others and the way we treat others,” Young said.
He said King's message went beyond racial justice and equality.
“It was larger than that. It was to bring about respect for all humanity,” Young said. “If we're going to rise, it takes all of us.”
Meanwhile, Harris said no one quite like King has come along since, but work based on the essence of his teachings is under way.
“We didn't finish the work in the age of the prophets and we didn't finish the work in the 20th century, but every generation that has a voice like Dr. King's has hope to take a few steps forward and work toward the prophetic vision of a just and merciful world,” she said.
“I don't hear one brave, rallying voice today, but I do see hope in organizations that are working against human trafficking, domestic violence, racism, religious tolerance, wars, hunger and poverty.”
He (King) would be concerned not just about where we are in terms of racial justice issues and economic issues, but where we are on how we treat one another. We are more socially fragmented than ever before.”
The Rev. A. Byron Coleman,
Senior pastor of Fifth Street