My Dear Fellow Clergymen: While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence 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 good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
St. John’s saying that God is love has long been balanced in my mind against the remark of a modern author (M. Denis de Rougement) that “love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god”; which of course can be re-stated in the form “begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god.” This balance seems to me an indispensable safeguard. If we ignore it the truth that God is love may slyly come to mean for us the converse, that love is God. I suppose that everyone who has thought about the matter will see what M. de Rougemont meant. Every human love, at its height, has a tendency to claim for itself a divine authority. Its voice tends to sound as if it were the will of God Himself. It tells us not to count the cost, it demands of us a total commitment, it attempts to over-ride all other claims and insinuates that any action which is sincerely done “for love’s sake” is thereby lawful and even meritorious. That erotic love and love of one’s country may thus attempt to “become gods” is generally recognised. But family affection may do the same.
This is the temple of intelligence and I am its hight priest. I have always been, despite the words of the proverb, a prophet in my own country. You will win but you will not convince. You will win because you have more than enough brute force; but you will not convince because to convince means to persuade. And to persuade you need something which you lack: right and reason.
In the course of a debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Huxley, in which Huxley defended the doctrine of evolution, the Bishop said: “I should like to ask Professor Huxley as to his belief in being descended from an ape. Is it on his grandfather’s or his grandmother’s side that the ape ancestry comes in?” Then, in a graver tone, he asserted that the views of Huxley were contrary to the revelations of Scripture. In the course of his refutation Huxley said: “I asserted — and I repeat — that a man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather. If there were any ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would rather be a man who plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and to distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.”
There is, therefore, a difference between civility and politeness, a sort of gradation from the first to the second. To be polite means more than to be civil. A polite person is necessarily civil; but a person simply civil is not polite. Politeness, therefore, not only supposes civility, but adds to it. The latter is by communication with men what public devotion is in regard to God, an exterior and sensible testimony of the interior sentiments that ought to animate us; and even in this it is precious as inspiring exterior deference and kindness. It is an open confession of the esteem and benevolence that ought to reign within.
If the Incarnation of the Eternal Son, as it is set forth in the Scriptures, be a truth of God — if the Divine Person Who had glory with the Father, having taken upon Him the nature of His creature, really condescended to go through the humiliation and pain and distress which is written of Him, it stands to reason that the loving humility and abnegation of self displayed in such endurance, must be the chief feature in the character of the God-man, which we must in our degree possess, if, in the words of the Holy Ghost, Christ is to be " formed in us."
The well-being of society would be greatly promoted, if the nature and use of this Christian virtue were more generally known. We take this to be, in personal intercourse, the observance of the command, Do to others as you would that others should do to you. The most rapid glance at any community, shows this: That some of its members are brought into contact in matters of business, necessarily; others meet, incidentally, who have no particular connexion; others meet for social purposes, in various forms; and that there is a large proportion who know, of each other, very little beyond the fact, that they are of the same country; and perhaps, not even that. There must be a best rule of deportment for all these classes; and no one will deny, that if this rule were defined, and faithfully applied, there would be much more of every day comfort, and complacency in the world, than there is well known to be. If we rightly understand the meaning of civility, it is the manifestation of kind feelings, and of a desire to do all things which are to be done, under the influence of such feelings, in a becoming and agreeable manner.
If every person understood the true foundation of society, the common origin of all its members, their natural and necessary sympathies, their community of interests, their necessary action upon, and with each other, it might be supposed, that all who are reasonable, would be civil. They would be so, because they would promote their own good, because they would be doing what it is proper to do, to promote the good of others; and because they would know, that in so doing, they would conform to the design of their creation. We do not include under the term civility, the great duties of justice, acts of munificence, important personal services. These arise out of some special relation, which an individual bears to one or more other individuals. It seems to be limited to the manner in which the common, or accidental intercourse of the members of society, in general, should be carried on.
This matter may be better understood by some examples. Thus, if one comes into the presence of another, as a beggar, servant, laborer, mechanic, trader, merchant, farmer, lawyer, physician, clergyman, or public officer; or if it be a female, or child of either sex; there may be very various modes of receiving these different persons. Yet, certainly, by every one of the laws, which we are endeavoring to illustrate, these several persons are entitled to civility. Even the beggar, perhaps one should rather say the beggar in particular, if not deformed by voluntary transgression, should be received with civility. That is, gentleness, kindness, decorum are to be observed relatively to each one. Why? because no man can afford to be deemed insensible to the calls of reasonable humanity; nor a stranger to the decencies of life; nor ignorant of what is due from him, nor to him, in any of his proper relations. Politeness may be quite another thing, in some of the supposed cases. One interchanges politeness with those who happen to know what politeness is; civility, with every body. A king would be polite to the ladies of his court, to his prime minister, to the members of his council, to foreign ministers, &c., and civil to his coachman, and to the humblest of his subjects.
We may find many illustrations, and fill ever so many pages with them. Let us take one which will concern the greatest number. In this country a stage-coach, and a steamboat, bring many persons into a small space, who may be utterly ignorant of each other’s existence, until they meet. They have a common object, that is, to be transported in the same vehicle, from the point of departure, to that of destination. Circumstances compel them to be very close to each other, and each one has the power of being very disagreeable to each one of the others, in a variety of well known modes. Let us suppose that each one consults merely his own interest, including in that, his own self-respect, the reasonable good will, which each man desires from all others, and the ever present principle of doing as he would be done by. He shows that he is sensible of the presence of his fellow-men; that he thinks them of sufficient consequence to wish to have their good opinion; that he is attentive to their comfort, or convenience; that he is disposed to learn something; from them, or communicate something; or to join with them in disposing of the time in which one has nothing to do, but to be carried. Take the other side of the picture; — he puts himself in the best place; takes out his cigar, lights it from a pocket apparatus, and goes to smoking; he sees no one, speaks to no one, and endeavors to hear no one; if spoken to, he answers in a coarse monosyllable, and in a tone which prevents all further attempt at intercourse with him. If he make his presence known at all, beyond his sullen sitting there, it is by some selfish exclamation; or contemptuous ejaculation, on what is passing within his notice. Which of these two persons is civil; which of them is making the most of human life; which of them is attracting good will; which of them ought to like himself the best; which of them will have the most to look back upon, with pleasure? Which of them is a rational, sensible, well disposed human being, and which of them is a selfish brute.
Often, notwithstanding, was I blamed, and by half-strangers hated, for my so-called Hardness, my Indifferentism towards men; and the seemingly ironic tone I had adopted, as my favorite dialect in conversation. Alas, the panoply of Sarcasm was but a buckram case, wherein I had striven to envelope myself; that so my own poor Person might live safe there, and in all friendliness, being no longer exasperated by wounds. Sarcasm I now see to be, in general, the language of the Devil; for which reason I have long since as good as renounced it. But how many individuals did I, in those days, provoke into some degree of hostility thereby! An ironic man, with his sly stillness, and ambuscading ways, more especially a young ironic man, from whom it is least expected, may be viewed as a pest to society.
We desiderate in it somewhat more of what becomes all men, but, most of all, a young man, to whom the struggles of life are only in their commencement, and whose spirt cannot yet have been wounded, or his temper embittered by hostile collision with the world, but which, in young men especially, is apt to be wanting — a slowness to condemn. A man must now learn, by experience, what once came almost by nature to those who had any faculty of seeing; to look upon all things with a benevolent, but upon great men and their works with a reverential spirit; rather to seek in them for what he may learn from them, than for opportunities of showing what they might have learned from him; to give such men the benefit of every possibility of their having spoken with a rational meaning; not easily or hastily to persuade himself that men like Plato, and Locke, and Rousseau, and Bentham, gave themselves a world of trouble in running after something which they thought was a reality, but which he Mr. A. B. can clearly see to be an unsubstantial phantom; to exhaust every other hypothesis, before supposing himself wiser than they; and even then to examine, with good will and without prejudice, if their error do not contain some germ of truth…
It is somewhat remarkable that this reverend divine should be so earnest for setting up new churches, and so perfectly indifferent concerning the doctrine which may be taught in them. His zeal is of a curious character. It is not for the propagation of his own opinions, but of any opinions. It is not for the diffusion of truth, but for the spreading of contradiction. Let the noble teachers but dissent, it is no matter from whom or from what.
Supposing, however, that something like moderation were visible in this political sermon; yet politics and the pulpit are terms that have little agreement. No sound ought to be heard in the church but the healing voice of Christian charity. The cause of civil liberty and civil government gains as little as that of religion by this confusion of duties. Those who quit their proper character, to assume what does not belong to them, are, for the greater part, ignorant both of the character they leave, and of the character they assume. Wholly unacquainted with the world in which they are so fond of meddling, and inexperienced in all its affairs, on which they pronounce with so much confidence, they have nothing of politics but the passions they excite. Surely the church is a place where one day’s truce ought to be allowed to the dissensions and animosities of mankind.
In 1784, a bill was before the House of Delegates of Virginia for a publick Act, “establishing a provision for the teachers of the Christian religion,” which had for its object the compelling of every person to contribute to some religious teacher. The bill was postponed to the next session of the legislature and ordered to be printed, and the people were requested to signify their opinion respecting its adoption. Among the numerous remonstrances against the passage of this bill, the following one drawn by Mr. Madison, stands pre-eminent. It is certainly one of the ablest productions of that great statesman, and deserves to be widely circulated. To use the language of the authour of the work from which it is extracted — Benedict’s “General History of the Baptist denomination in America,” — its “style is elegant and perspicuous and for strength of reasoning and purity of principle, it has seldom been equalled, certainly never surpassed, by anything on the subject in the English language.” It is hardly necessary to say that the bill never passed the House. ~ Hartford Times
Thomas Jefferson drafted The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1779 three years after he wrote the Declaration of Independence. The act was not passed by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia until 1786. Jefferson was by then in Paris as the U.S. Ambassador to France. The Act was resisted by a group headed by Patrick Henry who sought to pass a bill that would have assessed all the citizens of Virginia to support a plural establishment. James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments was, and remains, a powerful argument against state supported religion. It was written in 1785, just a few months before the General Assembly passed Jefferson’s religious freedom bill.
In all ages of the world, priests have been enemies to liberty; and it is certain, that this steady conduct of theirs must have been founded on fixed reasons of interest and ambition. Liberty of thinking, and of expressing our thoughts, is always fatal to priestly power, and to those pious frauds, on which it is commonly founded; and, by an infallible connexion, which prevails among all kinds of liberty, this privilege can never be enjoyed, at least has never yet been enjoyed, but in a free government.