The following is from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In:
Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” should be required reading for every student in America. The letter is written to a group of eight white clergymen (including protestant ministers, Catholic priests, and Jewish rabbis) in response to a letter they wrote, asking King to end his policy of nonviolent resistance to segregation. King’s famous response is brilliant:
“So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice...The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the archsupporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are...If the Church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the Church has risen to outright disgust.”
I grew up going to church in Fullerton—the First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton. In many ways, I am thankful for my Christian upbringing. It instilled in me many of the values I still hold dear: compassion, unselfishness, humility, self-sacrifice, justice.
But one of the many reasons I left the church was that it seemed culturally and socially irrelevant. It’s chief social “contribution” seemed to be to prevent gay marriage and abortion. And it’s chief cultural “contribution” was really bad music.
I was also a little disgusted, as King was, with its seeming comfort with the status quo. I would read in the gospels about Jesus, a poor carpenter, speaking out against injustice, and then I would go to church and see a bunch of affluent white Republicans, living in nice homes, driving nice cars. What, I thought, do these people know about Jesus? Technically, they weren’t breaking any laws. But they seemed to be breaking the spirit of the law of the gospels: “the greatest among you shall be your servant.” In the late 90s, there was a book that was really popular at my church called The Prayer of Jabez. Its basic message was: “Don’t feel bad about being rich. It means you are blessed.” I remember thinking even then—what a crock of shit.
The problem, as I see it, with the religious establishment in Orange County is that it conservative and comfortable at a time that calls out for progress and change. I know, from growing up in the church, that there are lots of good-hearted people who go to church. I suppose my message to them is “get with the times.” Get involved. Serve somebody. You don’t need to tell people about Jesus. Everyone knows about Jesus. What you need to do is show him.