Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Holiness Code for the Ages

Bros: Below is an unrevised, draft copy of an essay I threw together Saturday morning to provide you with a model for how you could go about constructing your own essay response to the reflection prompt distributed last week. Don't forget, the assignment is due Tuesday, January 27, 2009 in class on hard copy. See syllabus for formatting guidelines.
Bro. Rob Peach, FSC
Bro. Rob Peach, FSC
ENG 165 / Writing the Essay
27 January 2009

King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail: A Holiness Code for the Ages

Intro paragraph (sets the stage for what is to come by defining key terms; introducing the subject of the essay, MLK and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”; giving some background info on what MLK was all about; and the thesis statement in bold below)

Essentially, the term "social justice" refers to an ideal that upholds a system of fairness within a given society. It operates from a platform of equality on the basis that all are guaranteed rights to dignity and freedom regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity. Martin Luther King, Jr., the great civil rights leader of the twentieth century, proffered a sense of justice inspired by the biblical messages of his Christian faith. His own spirituality and that of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)—which he cofounded and which jump started the movement to end segregation laws in the American South—was informed by the Exodus of the Old Testament and Christ’s journey toward Calvary in the New Testament. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King protests the apathy—the ‘do-nothingism’ as he says (42)—of the white and black moderates who sit idly by while the Negro community of the American South and elsewhere endure the injustices of segregation, inadequate wages, and violence. King states, “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience” (40). It is white-on-black violence, the indifference of the moderates, and the despair which ensues such injustices in the Negro community that informs King’s “holiness code” of just law, tension, civil disobedience, and non-violent direct action.

Transition paragraph (serves to guide the reader, reminding him or her of the major topics to be discussed with regard to the subject of the essay MLK’s holiness code according to his “Letter…”)

The term “holiness code” refers to the laws set forth in the Book of Leviticus. These teachings were collected and put in the book by priest-writers known as, Deuteronomists, to illustrate true worship of God through just and compassionate relationships (Peach). If one were to construct a holiness code based off of King’s letter, it would involve a summary of his statements on what constitutes a just and unjust law, the need for tension as well as civil disobedience, and the efficiency of non-violent direct action.

Body paragraph (develops major theme of King’s address, namely what makes an unjust law)

King begins his address with a statement on ways in which a law can be unjust. He writes, “A law is unjust, for example, if the majority group compels a minority group to obey the statue but does not make it binding on itself. By the same token, a law in all probability is just if the majority is itself willing to obey it” (40). He goes on to say that the law cannot be just if the minority did not have a part in the voting process which devised the law. He refers specifically to the situation in Alabama in which “all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters” (King 40). King adds that a law considered unjust is rightfully protested if done so peacefully, in a loving way, and “with a willingness to accept penalty” (41). Such action is ironically a show of highest respect for the law (King 41). The primary systemic evil that King protests in the 1963 letter is that of segregation, a law enacted without the consent of the entire community and one that deserves protest by way of peaceful assembly of blacks and whites who rightfully consider the laws of segregation unjust.

Second body paragraph (addresses another major theme of King’s address, namely what makes non-violent direct action and why it is so important in confronting violence)

For King, the best way to confront the status quo—too easily perpetuated by the indifference of white and black moderates—is non-violent direct action, another aspect of his holiness code. The purpose of such action is negotiation according to King: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue” (39). King stresses the fact that he has “earnestly opposed violent tension,” adding that “there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth” (39). In other words, King is saying that in order for the community of blacks and whites to come together and work for a common bond of friendship and negotiation, there must be created a situation that dramatizes the inherent injustice of segregation. Thus enters the methods of doing so: sit-ins, marches, boycotts, speeches, and letters.

Third body paragraph (addresses the problem of racism in today’s world, using some basic references to modern day issues that involve racism)

What started with a civil rights demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama led to a million man march on Washington that incited President John F. Kennedy to enact laws to end segregation in the South. Regardless, racism is still a problem in the twenty-first century. Because “civilized” man has inherently aggressive tendencies, the contemporary societies of the world are ever threatened by their own demise. By unfolding the pages of human history we are not hard pressed to find ways in which aggression has manifest itself in the form of such evils as racism, genocide, and war. Some brief retrospective reflection teaches us that these manifestations overlap, presenting to us a picture of racism as the chief thread weaving through the blinding veil of violence. The racial implications of the Janjaweed’s ruthless assault on non-Arab Muslim Sudanese in Darfur, as well as the United States military intervention in Iraq and other parts Middle East such as Afghanistan are explicit historical realities that form the fabric of this veil currently blanketing the twenty-first century world. More implicitly, we see the violence of racism prevalent in the United States criminal justice and prison system (the majority population of which is black and Hispanic), as well as in the hardships experienced by Hispanic immigrants attempting to shape a familial and societal identity in a “free” country that ironically complicates their access to citizenship by police action and bureaucratic acrobatics. With such realities, we are all challenged to reassess what we can do in our own lives to profess a faith of justice and compassion—in biblical terms, a “Shema.”

Concluding paragraph (addresses my own Shema, based off of the subject of the essay: MLK and his letter; notice that, because the quote from him is more than four lines long, I place it in a "block" on its own)

If I were to create a “Shema” or profession of faith in which I stress what is most important to living a just and compassionate life, it would simply echo the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. … 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. … Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds. (39)

As it is with King’s call to justice in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, so it is with my Shema. It is nothing more than what the great prophets of biblical times encouraged their communities to do: to live tenderly and walk humbly before my God.

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