Telling Time in Birmingham

To respond, he wrote in the margins of the newspaper he was reading, and then on a piece of paper proffered him by a black guard, and finally on a pad given to him by his attorneys. He wrote,

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:


While confined here in the Birmingham City Jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all these criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine goodwill and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was responding to criticism of his civil rights activity in Birmingham, Alabama, made by eight fellow clergymen: Bishop C.C.J. Carpenter, Bishop Joseph A Durick, Rabbi Hilton L Grafman, Bishop Paul Hardin, Bishop Holan B. Marmon, the Reverend George M. Murray, the Reverend Edward B. Ramage and the Reverend Earl Stallings.

Besides the goodwill that he cites, there’s a reason for King’s decision to respond. He was answering clergy who had called his work “unwise and untimely,” thus effectively challenging his possession of an essential, though seldom explicated, quality of a good pastor: knowing how to tell time.

It’s not taught in seminaries, or any other program of pastoral formation, because telling time cannot be taught. Yet it’s impossible to be a good pastor without knowing when one should speak and when one should remain silent. A good pastor discerns whether it’s time to chide or to abide. Indeed, if being a gentleman or a lady requires not saying everything one thinks, being a pastor demands swallowing most every other thought.

I could fill pages with examples, ones any pastor would recognize. Here are a few: should I give Holy Communion to this person, or should I challenge his or her presence in the reception line? A good pastor must ponder and pray whether or not to speak. Not speaking might profane the Table of the Lord, but an untimely word might turn a person away from it for life.

Should a pastor challenge the poor theology that a penitent might offer in the course of confession? The one confessing may sadly misconstrue Church teaching, but a good pastor must ask if the “correction” would be life-giving, something that sets a soul free from a shackle, or would it only lead to greater confusion and a questioning of the sacrament itself? If pastoring souls is anything akin to doctoring bodies, then confession is spiritual surgery. A soul is in your hands, and you have only a moment to decide.

Sometimes people, who have never been a pastor, write angry missives about how someone should be corrected, why something should be said, or how the matter should be made patently clear. Often, true enough, but the word “pastor” comes from the Latin “to nourish,” and you can’t feed a flock you’ve scared away.

Being a good pastor means knowing when the time is right, when—to use New Testament terms—the wheels of chronos, chronological time, have turned enough to bring us to the decisive moment, the kairos, when God sees fit to intervene. Jesus didn’t fail to denounce evil, but he managed to gain a reputation for being a bon vivant before he did so. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is vindicated by her works” (Mt 11:19). Who would have remained to hear of the Kingdom, if he had preached only damnation?

Yet a pastor who won’t name evil, who won’t confront it, fails to be a prophet, fails to speak in the name, and with the authority, of God. Malachi writes, “And now, O priests, this commandment is for you: If you do not listen, if you do not lay it to heart, to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts, I will send a curse upon you and of your blessing I will make a curse” (2:1-2). Frightful warning, and yet every pastor must also imitate Saint Paul, who reminded his flock that “we were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children” (1 Thes 2:7).

By charism, a prophet tramples and transcends time. By office, a pastor must tend to time. One who fails to ask if this is the right time to speak may be a good prophet but a poor pastor. Malcolm X was a prophet; Martin Luther King was a pastor.

That’s why he felt compelled to justify his vocation as pastor by showing that he knew how to tell time. He recognized that the kairos moment had arrived. The pastor was ready to play the prophet. He wrote from his cell in Birmingham:

We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight case of poverty in the midst of an affluent society...

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

There’s the enduring lesson King offers, to pastors and to those they shepherd. We desperately need pastors who have the charism—for it is a God-given gift, not a skill that can be taught—for telling time.

Terrance W. Klein


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Maggie Rose
7 years 2 months ago
there is so much that needs shepherding in the rcc: people, theology, events ... the weight is best evenly distributed with each of us paying attention, in community, and contributing as best we can. no more is expected or asked. and i, for one, am enormously grateful for every pastor i have met and interacted with. perhaps i have been fortunate never to have met an unskilled pastor or if i have, he kept it so private i never suspected. christ be with each of us.
Sarah Hennessey
7 years 2 months ago
Lovely reflection!  Thanks for sharing.
"Telling time" is an essential part of discernment for all of us.  And discernment as you point out is an important gift for pastors.  I still find so much inspiration and food for thought in Dr. King's life.
I recently saw a new documentary on the Freedom Riders.  I was struck by Diane Nash and her gift for telling time as well.  When the riders were stopped in Alabama and it seemed like it was all over, within 24 hours she had organized two groups that were ready to take the place of the defeated riders.  Before they left they wrote their wills.  They were willing to die.
King and Nash make me wonder if my eyes are open.  Is my heart ready to risk?  Am I reading the times?


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