Time for Strange Thoughts and Long Prayers

Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in a Birmingham jail with way too much time on his hands. He had 10 days to sit alone in his cell, contemplate whether his choice to lead non-violent protest in Birmingham might have crippled the movement to which he had dedicated his life, and worry about his next move. Curiously, a bland letter of mild criticism of his efforts from eight white moderate clergymen commanded his attention, and he spent much of his time in jail writing a lengthy response while his supporters smuggled blank paper in and hand-written drafts out.

Within the letter, King described his period of confinement as a time to "think strange thoughts and pray long prayers." His "strange thoughts" included a searching of his heart for his true feelings toward those white ministers and those like them who spoke "pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities," but he also examined his own actions and utterances without attempt at excuse or self-justification. Had his timing exhibited too little or too much patience? Had his middle course between bowed acceptance of segregation and resistance that accepted violent action been the correct one? Would it be better to sever his relationship with the church entirely?

The aftermath of the election of 2004 may be a time when many of us are thinking strange thoughts and praying long prayers. There are many against whom we might express anger as King's wrath seethed against those pusillanimous pastors. We might complain about the stubbornly self-destructive behavior of working-class voters who are so easily distracted by "moral issues" that have little impact on the quality of their lives. We might aim recrimination within our ranks, especially supporters of same-sex marriage and unrestricted abortion, for what we perceive to be their impatience or lack of flexibility.

We would do well to follow King's example and save our most intense critiques for ourselves. Why are we failing to communicate effectively with the poor and working class voters with whom we want to connect? How do they perceive us and why? How well do we really understand the hopes and dreams of these Americans?

Dr. King's long prayers were not immediately answered upon his release from the Birmingham jail. His efforts to end segregation in Alabama and across the South sometimes sputtered frustratingly and sometimes surged gloriously for the remaining five years of his life, but historical perspective allows us to see that the intense self-examination he underwent during those 10 days eventually bore abundant fruit that fundamentally changed our nation. If we use our crushing 2004 disappointment as motivation toward achieving a better understanding of our movement and those whom it seeks to serve, these past days can serve as a starting point toward restoring and revitalizing progressive populism.

Rev. Allen H. Brill is a Lutheran pastor (ELCA) and co-founder of "Why Not, South Carolina?", an organization supporting the work of South Carolina progressives. Email

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