Last night, I sat down and read in its entirety, somehow for the very first time, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written 50 years ago this April. Doing so after what can only be termed the one of the most remarkable MLK Days we’ve ever witnessed was powerful indeed.
Not only did the federal holiday honoring King coincide with the second inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president, a laughable impossibility during King’s lifetime, but President Obama’s speech directly tackled the civil rights cause of our time – the right of every couple to marry, regardless of gender.
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.
The reference to Stonewall is especially remarkable, as Obama placed it in line after the first women’s rights convention in 1848 and the voting rights march led by King himself in 1965. The 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City are considered the seminal moment in gay rights history, when LGBT patrons of the Stonewall Inn refused to be bullied any longer by the NYPD and began the push that is culminating before our eyes in the successful drive for gay marriage in multiple states across the country.
Equating gay rights with the civil rights era personified by King remains controversial in some circles, but less so in recent years – and rightly so, I’d argue. Race may be more clearly genetic than sexual orientation, which appears to be a complicated, even mysterious, mix of environmental and genetic factors, but the right of minorities, including sexual minorities, to be treated equally remains a driving force in American society. We should not close the book on racial equality just yet, but working on a new one simultaneously is not inappropriate. Indeed, gay rights and civil rights are more like chapters in the same book, rather than separate tomes entirely.
Which brings me back to King’s letter from Birmingham. The context, in case you’re unaware, was the criticism King and his marchers had received from, of all people, local church leaders. King, as was his wont, issued a remarkable response, defending his passion for nonviolent resistance and leveling some eloquent – and richly deserved – criticism at those “moderate whites” who seemed to spend more time finding reasons not to support the cause of justice. In one section of the letter, King quotes from a letter he received from a white Texan arguing that since racial equality was inevitable, but that such things take time, and that King should not agitate for change that will happen in its own time.
King’s response is, of course, beautifully written, but it also dovetails with a theme of this blog lately, that God calls us to do kingdom work now, partnering with him in the restoration of all things and ensuring that his will is done on earth, as it is in heaven:
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. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
Remove the word “racial” from the last sentence, and this could have written by any advocate for gay marriage rights today.
But should it be? Should gay rights be tied to “the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God”? Can Christians who advocate for marriage equality be performing kingdom work?