We’ve been sharing memes all week with short quotes taken from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which deserves careful, repeated, and regular readings. About three-fourths the way into that missive is this longer quote that pretty well summarizes what we’re up to here at Love Wins in our little community experiment. We want nothing more, less, or other than to be the sort of creative extremists for love that Rev. Dr. King suggested the world is in dire need of.
I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime – the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
If we’re all extremists of some kind or other, that’s the kind we want to be, extremists for love and the extension of justice, using all the creativity we can muster to love each other well and advocate for each other. And we’re always glad to invite friends along with us on this journey.
Do you know Banksy? He is, depending on who you talk to, either a vandal, a prophet, an artist or a criminal.
I love his work – he does such a great job of pointing to the hypocrisy in our culture. He shows us the irony in the everyday. I highly recommend you check him out.
In any event, Random House published a collection of his work a few years ago, called Wall and Piece. In the back was Banksy’s Manifesto, as he called it, a selection from the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin DSO who was among the first British soldiers to liberate Bergen-Belsen in 1945. I love what it says about our humanity, and our need to be humanized. I would submit that any gospel that does not do for people what the lipstick does for these women is not good news at all.
I can give no adequate description of the Horror Camp in which my men and myself were to spend the next month of our lives. It was just a barren wilderness, as bare as a chicken run. Corpses lay everywhere, some in huge piles, sometimes they lay singly or in pairs where they had fallen. It took a little time to get used to seeing men women and children collapse as you walked by them and to restrain oneself from going to their assistance. One had to get used early to the idea that the individual just did not count. One knew that five hundred a day were dying and that five hundred a day were going on dying for weeks before anything we could do would have the slightest effect. It was, however, not easy to watch a child choking to death from diptheria when you knew a tracheotomy and nursing would save it, one saw women drowning in their own vomit because they were too weak to turn over, and men eating worms as they clutched a half loaf of bread purely because they had to eat worms to live and now could scarcely tell the difference. Piles of corpses, naked and obscene, with a woman too weak to stand proping herself against them as she cooked the food we had given her over an open fire; men and women crouching down just anywhere in the open relieving themselves of the dysentary which was scouring their bowels, a woman standing stark naked washing herself with some issue soap in water from a tank in which the remains of a child floated. It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tatooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.
When the Church has the freedom itself to be poor among the poor, it will know how to use what riches it has. When the Church has that freedom, it will know also how to minister among the rich and powerful. When the Church has that freedom, it will be a missionary people again in all the world. When the Church has the freedom to go out into the world with merely the Gospel to offer the world, then it will know how to use whatever else it has–money and talent and buildings and tapestries and power in politics–as sacraments of its gift of its own life to the world, as tokens of the ministry of Christ.
–William Stringfellow in A Private and Public Faith, 1962
In the beginning, I was convinced that if I were to shout loud enough, they would change. Now I know they won’t change. But if I shout even louder, it’s because I don’t want them to change me. Elie Wiesel – holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, world changer
When I first read that quote several years ago, I just did not get it. Now I do.