… First, second and third John, Birmingham, and Revelation

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. …

A while back I mentioned, off-handedly, that I’d second the motion to include Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in the Christian canon.

It’s a prison epistle from an apostle of Jesus Christ. The New Testament is where we usually keep those. It would fit right in.

You don’t have to have an arrest record to qualify as a New Testament author, but it seems to help. Just ask Peter, James, John, Paul, Luke and John of Patmos.

Since this was mostly a joking proposal, I hadn’t given any thought to the logistics of such an addition to the canon. I suppose I’d just assumed that King’s letter could be appended as a 28th book.

But now a friend has decided that won’t do. He realizes, I think, that many people will find my suggestion not thought-provoking as much as just provoking. And he enjoys watching me get myself in trouble.

So he asks what I would choose to cut from the New Testament to “make room” for this addition, figuring this would be a good way to get me into even more hot water with anyone upset by the original suggestion. To them, it’s bad enough to joke about adding to the canon, but even worse to joke about cutting something out of the …

Jude.

I’d swap Jude for Letter From a Birmingham Jail.

Consider this: King’s epistle draws from the scriptures of the biblical canon. Jude draws from the book of Enoch.

And what, you’re really going to fight over Jude? Be honest — when was the last time you read Jude other than as an item to check off on your way to reading through all 66 books? When was the last time you heard a sermon on Jude? Or highlighted a passage in Jude? Or said, “You know, that reminds me of that beloved verse from Jude?”*

It’s probably been a while. Or never. Swap out Jude and barely anybody will notice, let alone miss it.

Again, I’m kidding.

But it seems that even just joking about such a thing gets some folks riled up. They’ll start quoting Revelation 22:19:

If anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

And they’ll cite 2 Timothy 3:16**:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

And it won’t do any good to point out that John of Patmos wasn’t in any way saying anything about the book of Jude, or that he would have wanted or allowed his readers to say was about the book of Jude. And the same was true for whoever wrote 2 Timothy.

And now, of course, they’re even more upset because I just wrote “whoever wrote 2 Timothy,” so let’s retract that and pretend that I went along with the convention of pretending it was Paul.

But that passage from “Paul” actually provides a good summary of a more serious case or a more serious argument for treating Letter From a Birmingham Jail as something like scripture. I would say King’s epistle was inspired by God.*** And it is “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

It doesn’t logically follow that it must therefore be scripture — “Paul” says “All scripture is X,” not “all that is X is scripture” — but it does show how much in common it has with scripture.

And maybe, just maybe, by taking the bait from my friend here I’ve prompted somebody to go back and re-read Letter From a Birmingham Jail, and that’s always a good thing.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* Actually, the doxology at the end of Jude is lovely and probably familiar:

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen.

And even the weird bits include some terrific imagery:

They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved for ever.

** I would give big-time bonus points to anyone upset at my joking about Jude who responded by quoting Jude 8-10. That bit condemns people who “slander whatever they do not understand,” which would be a terrific rebuke if it weren’t built upon Jude’s peculiar lesson about Michael refusing to slander the devil while the two were fighting over Moses’ body. I won’t seriously slander the book of Jude, but it certainly falls in the category of things I “do not understand.”

*** I believe King’s letter was inspired by God, but it was assigned by Harvey Shapiro of The New York Times. Shapiro’s bosses at the paper later opted not to publish the piece:

King … was anxious to reply to “An Appeal For Law and Order and Common Sense,” a muddle-headed brief for compromise published in the Birmingham News a few days before [his arrest] by eight white Alabama clergymen. King scribbled a response in the margins of the newspaper, on toilet paper, and and on other scraps that his lawyers sneaked out to the SCLC’s executive director, Wyatt Walker, who got it transcribed. Walker passed drafts back and forth through the lawyers until King was satisfied.

Up north at the Times Magazine, Shapiro was eager to publish, but (according to [Diane] McWhorter) he “could not get the letter past his bosses at the Times.”

 

  • EllieMurasaki

    Somebody’d have to rewrite the little jingle that gets stuck in my head every time someone mentions three books of the New Testament in order. ‘Birmingham’ and ‘Jude’ have different scansion.

    I approve.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    I wholeheartedly support any call for more people to read the Letter from Birmingham Jail, or for people to read it more, or both.

    That’s what I was trying to do here.

    Not only is it an important document about a period in our history we should never forget, it is also generally applicable to what it happening today.

    Want to talk about marriage equality?  You’ll find supporting arguments, for example:

    An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

    Want to talk about churches focusing on the afterlife rather than helping those suffering right in front of them?  You’ll find supporting arguments, for example:

    In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

    Want to talk about victim blaming?  I give you this:

    In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.

    Want to talk about being labeled an extremist?

    If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So 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.

    And my excerpts are getting longer and longer, so that’s  a clear sign that I should stop and just say, “Go read the whole thing,” in order and without my commentary.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    All the more reason to just add it to the end without taking anything out. It belongs in the, “So… what now?” section.

  • AnonaMiss

    Wait – that bit about the deepest darkness being reserved for the wandering stars, is that why the Stars showed up as characters in The Last Battle? That whole passage sounds right in tune with the Narnian Apocalypse.

    It’s a wonder the PMDs don’t reference it more.

  • Kogit

    You don’t like Jude? I’m shocked!

    “Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—  just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. (Jude 5-8)

  • CoolHandLNC

    That’s easy! Cut Revelation. There is more mischief done through misunderstanding of Revelation than any other book in the Bible. It should be consigned to Apocrypha were it can sit next to Bel and the Dragon. (For that matter, the Wisdom of Sirach should maybe go in canon.)
    An even better idea, though, would be to get rid of the canon altogether. A closed canon implies complete discovery of God, which is absurd. To omit the writings of thousands of wise and insightful people is literally (!) an act of violence. Let each generation decide what is an is not worthy, while preserving as much literature of the past to pass along to the next generation. For that matter, we need to get away from the concept of the Magic Book, like the bible (koran, whatever) is some sort of grimoire with mystical power and authority. It made a lot more sense when writing was new technology, books were expensive to produce, and few could read them. It is an increasingly silly notion in an age of blogs, e-books, mass storage, and instantaneous communication. 

  • PurpleAardvaark

    I re-read the letter from Birmingham yesterday.  I was one of those white moderates who thought that change had to come gradually but then, I was only in the 9th grade at that time.  Reading it yesterday, I was struck by the same thing as Chris the Cynic — how much of it remains relevant today.  Yes we had Seneca Falls but the Equal Rights Amendment was not passed. Yes we had Selma but racism is still with us. Yes Stonewall started the process that has led through “don’t ask, don’t tell” to where we now are beginning to recognize that at least one aspect of marriage is that it confers legal rights to the spouses that are denied to others. So yes, there is still more to be done and yesterday’s call to us to be actors not spectators is also contained in the letter from Birmingham.

    I was also struck by the description of Clarence Thomas, “a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses”

  • Darakou

    I for one would be upset at losing this beloved passage:

    “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad.Take a sad song and make it better.Remember to let her into your heart,Then you can start to make it better.” Jude 42

  • Carstonio

     I read the post’s title and started hearing “Abraham, Martin and John.”

  • EllieMurasaki

    From/based on…

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    I must have heard that song for 20 years or more (couldn’t be too much more) before I knew what it was about, mind you they were amoung the first years of my life, but still.

  • Carstonio

    Based on fact that the post title includes the name John and that the song is partly about MLK. Often my earworms are associational. Plus, the song title sounds vaguely biblical because of Lincoln’s first name.

  • Foreigner

    I see somebody has already done the obvious Jude gag, so I’ll have to settle for the Obscure one.

  • christopher_y

    “You have to keep in mind,” Barnard sociologist Jonathan Rieder informed me by e-mail, “that by the end of May and into June, there were lots of venues publishing variants and selections of the letter, and King and his people had not yet secured copyright.”

    That sounds like a lot of the canonical books too.

    The problem with Jude is that there was clearly some sort of faction fight going on in the congregation he was writing to, and he was clearly writing to bring his prestige to bear on behalf of one side or another. But since we don’t know what the issues were, or who was involved, or when it happened or even who Jude was, really, to say it loses some of its immediate impact would be an understatement.

  • The_L1985

     Sirach?  Isn’t that the one that was essentially 60+ chapters of “Stay away from prostitutes?”

  • Isabel C.

    Without Jude, we wouldn’t have at least one pretty good Portishead song, but that’s probably a pretty minor sacrifice.

  • Jim Roberts

    That’s an odd translation – they actually get a word that means “fornication” and they go with sexual immorality? And a word that always either means “flesh” or is used to refer to the desire for flesh rendered as the desire without its object?

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    A Protestant “Fundamentalist” reading predicated on the King James Version– a book specifically written with a political agenda, based on a book specifically collated by a bunch of Catholics, written in other languages…yeah.  One of those tricky problems where reality & history contradict dogma.  Funny how those seem to happen all the time with “Fundamentalists.”

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

     “Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day— just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. (Jude 5-8)

    This just shows that the writer of Jude didn’t understand the Jewish midrash about Sodom and Gomorrah.  To wit, Ezekiel 16:49:

    Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.

    Of course, it’s also interesting to note that the notion of eternal hellfire and punishment wasn’t even a remotely Jewish concept.  It made its way into Christianity by way (most likely) of some combination of Zoroastrianism and the Hellenic/Roman concept of Hades.

    But, y’know, other than that the whole bit in Jude is right on and Fred probably does totally hate it for the reasons you think.

  • sketchesbyboze

    I believe Kanye West once suggested adding himself to the New Testament canon as a “wise shepherd” or balladeering mentor figure. Friends, it’s not too late.

  • Lunch Meat

    When was the last time you heard a sermon on Jude?

    Last month. Ha. So there.

    (Randy Harris, one of the better known teachers at my alma mater, is frequently invited to speak at various churches of Christ and is known for picking out the weird and challenging stuff. He spoke at my church several weeks ago on Jude, the “pearls before swine” verse in the Sermon on the Mount, and the number of the beast in Revelation.)

  • patter

    nonviolent
    gadflies

    Who will that be for the gun laws, I wonder.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.

    Well, that certainly explains a lot about me.  If only I actually knew any non-violent methods for eradicating misogyny, willful ignorance, and a desire for social dominance from influential society.  

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I was one of those white moderates who thought that change had to come gradually but then, I was only in the 9th grade at that time.

    [...]

    Yes we had Seneca Falls but the Equal Rights Amendment was not passed. Yes we had Selma but racism is still with us. Yes Stonewall started the process that has led through “don’t ask, don’t tell” to where we now are beginning to recognize that at least one aspect of marriage is that it confers legal rights to the spouses that are denied to others. So yes, there is still more to be done and yesterday’s call to us to be actors not spectators is also contained in the letter from Birmingham.

    It sounds like change still does come gradually.  We may see justice enacted swiftly, but to see it fully realized takes time and continual effort.  Getting society to acknowledge that things are currently unjust and needs to be immediately changed is only the first step on a long path ahead.  

    As King himself said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

  • Jurgan

    I thought you said you wanted it left out of the canon, because it would inevitably be distorted and misinterpreted in the same way the current canon is.

  • Eamon Knight

    Lessee: Revelation was written sometime around 100 CE (+/- a fair bit depending on who you listen to). The NT Canon wasn’t finalized for another two or three centuries.

    Looks like all those early Church councils are in for a hot time ;-).

  • Savvy Single Christian

    What a terrible translation!  “Clouds without water”???  You can’t have clouds without water.  You can have clouds which don’t produce rain, but every cloud needs H2O.  I know, technicalities…

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Think of it like poetry, the literal gives way to the symbolic.  

    I find it makes reading the Bible a lot more understandably.  

  • Ben English

    It occurs to me that canonizing the Birmingham Letter would have one benefit that no other book in the Bible has: it was written in modern English and under a well known cultural context. No way to make the ambiguities of a dead dialect work for your political agenda.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jrandyowens Randy Owens

    Clouds of dust. ‘Nuff said.

  • Kiba

    But it seems that even just joking about such a thing gets some folks riled up. They’ll start quoting Revelation 22:19:
    If anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

    Would they also condemn the conservative bible project? ‘Cause if not…

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    We will never eradicate the desire for social dominance from humanity. I guess it’s possible we’ll evolve out of it in a million years or something… but I doubt it. As for the rest, education. Lots and lots of education. And it’s working — working fast, too. Look at me, a woman with an education and not unusual in having an education, a married woman whose property is shared with her husband, not owned by him, talking with men and not being expected to defer to them. I’m a full citizen of the United States, mostly. As little as a hundred years ago, I would not have been.

  • P J Evans

     How would they have known that?
    They saw lots of clouds, they didn’t get rain, so ‘clouds without water’.

  • Mark Z.

    Would they also condemn the conservative bible project?

    Andy Schlafly is already in hell. He just hasn’t noticed yet.

  • http://twitter.com/shutsumon Becka Sutton

     Ooh, I don’t know. I quite like parts of Sirach.

    http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Sirach+4:1-10

  • arghous

    The whole concept of ‘canon’ is pretty suspect anyway, isn’t it?  If you’ve got Jude in there, why not the Gospel of Thomas or Barnabas?

    Or taken the other way around, if you applied modern scholarship to which documents are pure, free of forgery or interpolation, what would you have left?

  • LoneWolf343

    You know, the word “damn” means to call judgement upon. With that in mind, it is plausible that Michael told Lucifer “God damn you!”

  • Amaryllis

     the Wisdom of Sirach should maybe go in canon

    Isn’t it already?

  • Amaryllis

     Also, being easily amused, I fall every time for the “there are two things– no, I mean three things..” rhetoric.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=543663946 Danny Klopovic

    Instead of positing a distinction along the lines of scripture and tradition, MLK’s letter is part of the Christian tradition, it might be more helpful to speak just of tradition in terms of responsible and irresponsible tradition – scripture after all is simply a slice of tradition. 

  • Robyrt

    At my church, there were several months’ worth of sermons on Jude a year ago. So yeah, I’ve heard about it recently.

    As far as adding/removing from the canon goes, the Bible is not supposed to be a complete compendium of all good things written by Christian authors. It’s a minimal selection of known inspired writings. You don’t see Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans in there, because it doesn’t say anything he doesn’t say elsewhere. I’d class King with Clement’s epistles and the Book of Enoch – popular, profitable and godly, but there’s no need for them to be included in the canon.

  • http://willbikeforchange.wordpress.com/ storiteller

     My pastor actually had a brilliant sermon on the “pearls before swine” passage  a couple weeks ago, which I myself have never really gotten until then: http://www.churchinbethesda.org/media (Nonjudgemental Christians: Part I) Basically, he said that all of the people around us – our neighbors, Christian and not – are the pearls and our judgements about them are the swine.  If we judge people, our own judgement will tear us apart in the end.

  • Anton_Mates

    You can’t have clouds without water.

    Sure you can. Any sort of chemical vapor can form a cloud–there are clouds of ammonia, chlorine, etc.  Metaphorically likening someone to one of thoseclouds is a pretty good insult.

  • Mitch

    Count me among those prompted to read “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”. It was the first time for me actually. Unlikely to be the last.

  • KevinC

    Well, why not?  If you’re a Protestant, and you reject the authority of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church,” then you also reject the authority that decreed “the Bible” as “canon” in the first place.  Just as every Protestant asserts the right to read and interpret Scripture for themselves, why should they not also have the right to “canonize” and “de-canonize” “Scripture” at will?  Why can’t a Protestant put in the Epistle of King from the Birmingham Jail, or the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, or whatever, instead of bowing to the authority of Late Roman prelates and brutal Emperors?

    The Catholics themselves added to the “canon” in the Council of Trent.  Since that was a part of the “Counter-Reformation,” I’m guessing that in addition to adding books that shored up some of their distinctive doctrines they were also making a rather public demonstration of, “Hey, guys?  You realize that we as a Church created the Bible and not the other way around, right?  See?  We’re doing it again.”

    I would love to see a new “Church Council” of progressive Christians like Fred get together, do a general house-cleaning and line-item veto through “the Bible,” and create a new “canon” that reflects the moral and intellectual growth that has taken place since the creation of the 1.0 version.  “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” would, of course, make a fine addition. 

  • KevinC

    I’m liking the idea of Birmingham in the Bible more and more.  Consider this part:

    One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and
    obeying
    others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I
    would be the first
    to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey
    just laws.
    Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St.
    Augustine
    that “an unjust law is no law at all.”Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is
    just
    or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of
    God. An unjust
    law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St.
    Thomas Aquinas:
    An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law
    that uplifts
    human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All
    segregation statutes
    are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the
    segregator
    a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation,
    to use the
    terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for
    an “I thou”
    relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is
    not only
    politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul
    Tillich has said
    that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic
    separation, his awful
    estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?

    …and how, if it were applied to Biblical “law” (as is done with, say, the words attributed to Jesus that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”), it would blow the anti-gay “clobber verse” “Biblical” position into tiny little smithereens.  “Please turn in your Bibles to Birmingham, chapter two, verses 13 to 35…” KAPOW, SPLAT!

  • EllieMurasaki

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Good-Book-Humanist-Bible/dp/0802717373/ The Good Book: A Humanist Bible

    I ain’t read it yet, and of course humanists generally reject theism and are thus not Christians. But it’s close to what you mean, I think.

    I suspect it doesn’t have Birmingham, because King spends too much of the letter relying on what he learned in seminary, but it ought to.

  • KevinC

    My thoughts exactly.  After my last post I went to Amazon and tried to find out if Grayling had put Birmingham in there.  I couldn’t tell from the parts I could see in the preview (I wasn’t signed in, and had to get back to work anyway, so no time for a more thorough search).


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