We are in the midst of a sea-change in our national culture and society. The coronavirus and police brutality have exposed the embedded racism in American life and people around the country are standing up to uncover it, protest it, and change it.
But this is a long battle — it will not be won in a single rally. In many ways, what we are standing up for is the ability to begin this work. Because racism is so ingrained in our imaginations and culture and ways of living, it will cost all of us something dear to successfully uproot it.
The massive scope of this problem and its complexity call for passionate, patient, consistent effort. It is not easy to sustain this kind of work without the right interior resources. It is easy to burn out when we feel like all we’ve given has made no difference. It is tempting to turn to more forceful means that seem more efficient, but prove self-destructive.
We are not the first generation to face social change. The 1960s were a time of social upheaval as well, and we can find wisdom from the thoughtful, faithful people who waded into those battles and sustained the fight. Two letters that have stood the test of time might be of help as we orient ourselves for the road ahead.
Letter from Birmingham Jail, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In April of 1963, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference began a campaign of marches and sit-ins in Birmingham, Alabama, to protest racial segregation. King was arrested with several other leaders.
While in jail, someone smuggled a newspaper to King, and it contained a published letter from eight white clergymen who decried King and the black protestors as extremists. King immediately began to respond, scribbling at first in the margins of the paper, and continuing on a pad of paper that his lawyers were eventually allowed to leave for him.
The open letter he composed has become a classic text for the civil rights era, and for the nonviolent protest movement. Here are some pertinent sections that might inform our current struggle:
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
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 coworkers 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.
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?
Letter to a Young Activist, by Thomas Merton
In 1966, a young activist named Jim Forest was protesting the Vietnam war. He was friends with Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, through their association with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Jim wrote Merton in a state of exhaustion — he was worn out, feeling like his actions were having no effect at all.
“I confess to you that I am in a rather bleak mood,” he wrote. “For one thing, I am exhausted with ideological discussions. … Meanwhile murder goes on without interruption. This appalls me to such a degree that I get weary writing it down.”
Merton’s reply was edited down to a short passage that was later published by the Catholic Worker as “A Letter to a Young Activist,” and has since become a classic text for protestors working for social change. The pertinent sections read like this:
Do not depend on the hope of results.
When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.
And there too a great deal has to be gone through as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.
The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.
The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.
The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration and confusion.
The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do God’s will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand.