By Gary G. Yerkey
Episcopalians are obliged to violate earthly laws in order to advance the higher law established by God, the dean of Washington National Cathedral said on February 24. During a panel on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the Very Rev. Gary R. Hall cited the actions of Episcopalians in the 1960s to desegregate the racially divided church.
Hall said every faith community has to decide whether it is prepared to engage in “disturbing the peace.” Otherwise, he asked, “Are we protectors of the status quo?”
“The church sometimes has to break the law,” he said, “in the service of a higher law.”
King’s letter, written in April 1963, defended the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism and argued that citizens have a responsibility to break unjust laws. Historians count it among the most significant documents of the civil rights era.
Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral since October 2012, said that King has inspired him throughout his life. He said he came to the church through the civil rights movement, and that King’s example had informed his decision to open the cathedral to same-sex marriage, which he announced earlier this year. “He’s always had a big influence on me,” Hall said.
Other panelists— part of the Aspen Institute’s “Around Town Series” — were longtime civil rights activist Julian Bond; Stephen L. Carter, professor of law at Yale University; and Natasha Trethewey, U.S. Poet Laureate.
King delivered a sermon at the cathedral on March 31, 1968, and was assassinated four days later in Memphis. Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, moderated the discussion.
Bond, who cofounded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and served as chairman of the NAACP from 1998 to 2010, said that King’s letter was important to the civil rights movement — and to the broader American population — because King insisted on the need to act urgently in resisting racial injustice. King wrote at a time, he said, when many religious leaders, while supporting the fight against racial injustice, were calling on civil rights leaders like King to moderate their demands for rapid change or risk greater societal discord.
“They didn’t understand that time is not what we need,” Bond said. “We need action.”
King wrote in response to an open letter to him in the Birmingham News on April 12, 1963, signed by eight religious leaders in Alabama, including the Rt. Rev. Charles C.J. Carpenter, Bishop of Alabama. It called on King to stop leading mass street demonstrations in Birmingham, saying that they were “unwise and untimely” and were not contributing to the resolution of “our local problems.” The leaders added that they understood the “natural impatience” of those who feel that their hopes were “slow” in being realized.