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Could Martin Luther King’s epistle from jail be holy scripture?

In 1979, a grassroots movement among black churchmen in the U.S. pushed to add King’s famous letter to the Bible


 

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For the first time in centuries, a serious attempt is being made to add another book to the Bible. There is a grassroots movement among black churchmen in the United States to have a letter which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, canonized as Holy Scripture and ranked alongside the epistles of St. Paul. A Bible containing the letter will be published in the next few months. Though not officially recognized by any denomination, it is expected to find early acceptance in black Protestant congregations and its sponsors predict that it will be used throughout the world within 20 years.

The letter itself is a remarkable and inspiring document. About 9,000 words long, it was written on April 16, 1963, when King was imprisoned during a civil rights protest. “The best advice I can give anyone, before they pass judgment on this idea, is to read the letter,” says one highly respected Roman Catholic theologian in Washington, D.C. “I do not wish to become involved in the controversy at this stage. But the letter is of significance, particularly to the oppressed.”

Rev. Muhammed Kenyatta, a Baptist minister and sociology instructor at Haverford College, Pennsylvania, is one of those now negotiating for the publication of the new Bible. “What we believe is that God continues to move people, with or without their conscious knowledge. We believe that God worked through Dr. Martin Luther King in that jail in Birmingham in 1963, to reveal His Holy Word. People generally do not realize that the process of deciding what is or is not Holy Scripture has been an ongoing one.”

The last major change to the Bible was in the 16th century when Protestant churches dropped from the Old Testament the books and portions of books that Protestants now call the Apocrypha and that Roman Catholics call the deuterocanonical books.

Since 1966, when black theologians in the U.S. began to express themselves a good deal more forcefully than ever, there has been a strong feeling that the “black religious experience” needed some special recognition. By 1977 they were pressing their own churches to consider publishing a Bible containing some form of “Black Testament.” At a meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, that year there was a sudden, spontaneous agreement among them that the testament should be King’s letter. The movement in favour of printing it next to St. Paul’s work has been growing steadily ever since. In August, at the third annual conference of the Black Theology Project in Cleveland, a proposal to print a Bible with the King letter as another epistle in the New Testament was approved.

Kenyatta points out that no existing church body has the authority to add anything to the Bible. He therefore argues that the best method of testing the acceptability of a new epistle is simply to print it.

King wrote the Birmingham letter to a group of eight white Alabama clergymen who had criticized him as an outside agitator and termed his actions as “unwise and untimely.” It is dramatic in style, sometimes angry, always compassionate, forceful and moral. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” wrote King. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

There is a rending condemnation of segregation and racism, a searing answer to those who complained that blacks should “wait” to gain equality, and an impatience with white moderates. “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” he wrote. But there is great praise, too, for the whites who helped fight for civil rights: “They have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

Wrote King: “One day the South will recognize its real heroes.” And then he listed among them “a 72-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: ‘My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.’ "

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