Resurrection is racial reconciliation

  • by Jim Mitulski
  • Wednesday March 27, 2013
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Most of us who celebrate Easter focus on the events of 2,000 years ago, when a Jewish dissident named Jesus was arrested for disturbing the peace. Religious leaders, politicians, and a few of his disappointed friends collaborated to have him arrested, tried without due process, and given the death penalty for his actions. They hoped to discourage his followers who were no longer content to live under Roman occupation, and whose lives were controlled by religious customs based on tradition and which emphasized difference over unity.

The "Jesus movement" was a haven for people who questioned the status quo; they protested against the privileges of a few at the expense of the many and fought for the right for spiritual and political self-determination. Through the power of resurrection, the death of Jesus managed to galvanize his followers, who created communities of resistance where an ethic that "Love is Stronger than Death" supplanted fear of the state and the desire to conform.

Some Christians might dispute my re-telling of this familiar story in these terms, but my work in LGBT religious communities over the past 30 years as a minister revealed these dimensions to me as I witnessed the power of this story to give hope to marginalized communities. I especially came to appreciate this Easter story during the harshest of the AIDS years. I saw many crucifixions – and many resurrections. I marvel I am still alive after so many years of living with HIV/ADS, and I know that resurrection is real because I cried like a baby when I read last month of the unnamed baby in Mississippi, who because of aggressive post-natal treatment, may well have been cured of AIDS. Easter happened early for me this year, just in hearing her story. But there is another Easter story I want to bring to our collective attention, as important as the one that took place in Palestine/Israel so long ago.

Fifty years ago on Good Friday (the exact date was April 16, 1963), the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and put in jail for his role in calling for a boycott of the still segregated downtown stores in Birmingham, Alabama during one of their peak profit periods. White merchants, angry that their Easter sales were being discouraged, collaborated with white officials (including law enforcement and the newly elected mayor) to enjoin King from his activism. Though he had been warned of the consequence of any public demonstration, King and his clergy companion the Reverend Dr. Ralph Abernathy led a march from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which led them straight into the waiting arms of Sheriff Bull Connor's deputies. Despite the presence of a thousand or more singing and praying witnesses, mostly black, and entirely peaceful, King, Abernathy, and 50 of their fellow marchers were arrested. King was placed in solitary confinement, "the hole" as some called it, no doubt like "the tomb" in which Jesus was confined. We know that King derived strength and solace from the example of Jesus, and I can't even imagine how he didn't lose his mind as King spent that Easter in prison, alone, cut off from friends, family, and supporters. President Kennedy would eventually intervene and allowed a phone call to take place between King and his wife Coretta, and this sacrificial action on King's part drew unprecedented attention to the plight of African Americans throughout the South and in Birmingham in particular.

While incarcerated, King penned his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," patterned after a New Testament epistle, and written on scraps of newspaper and smuggled out through his attorney. King drew upon his considerable memory to make a case for Christian activism on behalf of the oppressed. Several liberal white clergymen in Birmingham (a rabbi and the Catholic, and Episcopal and Methodist bishops) had issued a public letter criticizing King for his actions, saying, "We are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced these demonstrations are unwise and untimely."

King was deeply wounded by this betrayal of progressive white Christian leaders, and their dismissal of him as an extremist. He replied, "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 men were crucified for the same crime – the crime of extremism ... Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth and goodness ... perhaps the South, the entire nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists."

In re-reading the letter this year, I was as stirred by the ancient accounts of crucifixion and resurrection. Shortly after it was written some clergy called for its inclusion as an additional book in the New Testament. With the passage of 50 years the clarion call to resurrection as racial reconciliation is even more relevant, I am proud to say that the church I serve, on a seminary campus in Berkeley, keeps copies of the letter in the pews and we encourage people to take them and read them. I urge you to do the same.

If you want to understand how suffering, death, and sacrifice in the service of liberation still has meaning, read the letter and give it to others. Michelle Alexander's brilliant book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has convinced me that if we aren't talking about racism right now, and in particular the plight of incarcerated African American men, then we aren't engaged in the work of liberation and we are complicit in the perpetuation of slavery and its legacy. And if we are moved by the Jesus story, or the King story, and aren't paying attention to the fact the our own government is relegating people awaiting trial to unhealthy periods of solitary confinement at Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, then we aren't ready to live fully into the Easter story of liberation, or claim a place in its lineage.

My Easter vow this year is to make it more than a recollection of what happened then, as beautiful a story as that of Jesus and Mary Magdalene finding themselves in the garden three days after Jesus was executed, and realizing in tangible ways that Love Never Ends. When we celebrate marriage equality it will be in part a direct legacy of the African American civil rights movement, an unfinished project that compels all of us to participate in it until it is achieved. My Easter vow is to proclaim a faith that includes the full equality of women and men in church and society, despite the continued intransigence of the leaders of largest groups of Christians, the Roman Catholics, on this issue. My Easter vow is to pray for more cures like the baby in Mississippi. I'm expanding Easter and Resurrection to mean racial reconciliation and gender justice, and while I am proud to sing "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today," this year, a song popularized by Nina Simone is a more accurate reflection of my Easter hope: Stars when you shine you know how I feel/Scent of the pine you know how I feel/Oh freedom is mine/And I know how I feel/And this old world is a new world/And a bold world/For me/It's a new dawn/It's a new day/It's a new life/For me/And I'm feeling good.


The Reverend Jim Mitulski is pastor at New Spirit Community Church, 1798 Scenic Avenue, in Berkeley. For more information, visit