Monday, November 15, 2004

Christianity and Human Rights in Birmingham

The conference at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama this past weekend was exceptional. There are a number of themes that I hope to write about over the course of the next several days. A good starting point, however, might be yesterday's experiences, which, for me, perfectly framed the academic discussions of Christianity and human rights during the many sessions on Friday and Saturday.

On Sunday morning, I attended the services at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The city of Birmingham was founded in 1871; the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was established two years later. It is Birmingham's oldest church, but it is more famous for the role it played in the Civil Rights Movement.

During the 1950s and 1960s--and especially in 1963, the year that Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed and Bull Connor turned firehoses on children in peaceful protest marches--Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the focal point of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. On September 15, 1963, the church was bombed. Four young girls were killed and twenty other people were injured. (Four Ku Klux Klan members were implicated in the bombing. One was convicted and sentenced in 1977, another died, never having been tried, in 1994, and two others were convicted and sentenced in 2001 and 2002.)

It occurred to me as I sat in church that for the people in that congregation who were old enough to have lived through the events of 1963--people like Deacon Marvin Hicks, who greeted me so warmly out on the street as I arrived and then again inside after the service was over--the question of how Christianity should inform one's response to injustice and even violence was not an academic question. They didn't have the time or the money or perhaps even the desire to organize a conference on Christianity and human rights. They worked out the answers as they watched their homes and churches being bombed. And, judging from what I saw at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute across the street, they got it right. They responded to serious violations of human rights in a way that promoted both justice and reconciliation.

Most of us lack a sense of urgency about determining how our faith should affect our response to serious human rights abuses because those human rights abuses are not happening to us. That, however, is a self-interested response totally at odds with Christ's teachings about loving our neighbors with, as the story of the Good Samaritan reminds us, a broad understanding of who our neighbor is.