Rev. Dr. Bruce Metzger (1914-2007) is widely considered one of the most influential New Testament scholars of the 20th century. By the time I was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, Dr. Metzger had already retired, though he frequented the campus often giving lunchtime lectures to interested students and faculty. Following one such lecture, he allowed for some Q and A which yielded one question (and answer) that profoundly impacted me. He was asked if he thought the biblical canon was “closed.” In other words, might it be possible that other books could be added to the 27 books currently in the Protestant version of the New Testament? His answer was that he didn’t think the “church” would ever be able to agree on any new additions, but went on to say that the book most frequently recommended to him for consideration of canonization was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail.
Over the years I have read and re-read Dr. King’s Letter, and continue to be blessed by both his extraordinary and brilliant mind as well as his devotion to his Christian heritage as a peacemaker and justice-seeker. My interest in Dr. King’s life (in word and deed) lead me to visit the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, which is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum. His motel room has been kept as it was on the day he was assassinated, complete with paper bags that held his “take out” dinner; what proved to be Dr. King’s last meal. I silently viewed the balcony outside his room where he was killed; the exact spot where he was standing has been appropriately memorialized. And I wonder what Dr. King would think about the current state of affairs regarding race relations in the U.S. Perhaps his Letter From a Birmingham Jail might shed some light upon this question, as well as provide some insight and direction for those of us who care deeply about human suffering, in general, and racial injustice, in particular.
In his Letter, Dr. King wrote:
“In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action.”
Over the last few years, as I have tried to better understand the various issues related to both understanding prejudice and/or discrimination as well as identifying solutions, I have learned to be skeptical of the “facts” offered by any and all parties willing to offer their point-of-view. The “facts” sometime seem to tell only part of the story. Almost always, the “facts” offered only seem to support the particular view of the interviewee, and place the burden of blame solely upon the shoulders of the identified wrongdoer. As an author, pastor and researcher, it is not my intention to debate the nuances of cause and effect, responsibility and blame. However, there is one fact that is either unknown, or often ignored, to wit: Prejudice, discrimination and implicit bias have a severe impact upon both the health and life-expectancy of African-Americans. Though trending in a hopeful and more positive direction, inequality remains, to the detriment of African-Americans.
I hope this fact, along with Dr. King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail, stimulates the peaceful dialogue so desperately needed at such a time as this. If it does, Dr. King’s memory will be honored and his wisdom will remain fruitful.
Rev. Dr. Michael Barry
Grand Rapids, MI
Barry is an author and research associate with FoRGo, a forgiveness and resiliency project. The project is led by research scholar, Dr. Loren Toussaint, Ph.D., from Luther College.