Have you ever wondered how the Bible came into being? Who wrote the many different books that we consider scripture, and who decided what to include in the official Bible and what to leave out?

There is no clear-cut answer to those questions. With a few exceptions, the many authors of the Bible are lost to history. Even the process by which so many different writings came together to form the Bible is not entirely clear.

What we consider the Old Testament, or the books of the Jewish Hebrew Bible, were certainly well known to Jesus, and scholars believe the Jewish canon, or official writings, may have existed in the form we know it as early as two centuries before Jesus’ birth.

The books of the New Testament as we know it probably existed by the early 200s, and by the mid-third century were universally accepted.

It is interesting that the process took decades, or even centuries. There was never an official meeting or synod or conference where leaders got together to make a definitive decision on what spiritual writings would officially be declared the Bible.

There is no date-able moment in time when someone in authority announced, “This is it.”

That means, as one of my seminary professors explained, that the canon of scripture has never been officially closed. At least in theory new books could be added to the Bible. It is hard to imagine that actually happening, but it’s interesting to think about.

And really, why shouldn’t there be new writings that are considered holy?

One of the criteria for inclusion in the Bible is the belief that the writing has been divinely inspired. Surely in the last 18 centuries there have been poems written as beautiful and divinely inspired as the psalms, or accounts of God’s spirit at work in the world like those recorded in the Book of Acts, or divinely inspired prophets calling God’s people to task like Isaiah or Amos.

God did not stop working in the world when the writer of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, laid down his pen (or quill).

If I were asked what contemporary writing might be worthy of being included in scripture, my answer would be the letter from which we read today – the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

There is, of course, a precedent for scripture written in prison. At least four of Paul’s letters were written while he was imprisoned for preaching and following the gospel.

Following the gospel also led King to jail many times. His famous letter was written after he was arrested in Birmingham on Good Friday 1963 while leading demonstrations against segregation. He writes in response to a letter from eight moderate white clergy, including the Episcopal bishop of Alabama, that was published in the Birmingham newspaper.

These clergy agreed that social injustices existed in their state, but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be carried out in the courts, not the streets.

“We are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders,” they wrote, in a veiled reference to King, whose presence in Birmingham was resented by the white establishment.

King was in jail when he read the letter. He immediately began scribbling a response, writing on scraps of newsprint and toilet paper, asking his lawyer to smuggle in paper when he came to visit.

The lengthy epistle has become one of the most important documents in our nation’s history, and of contemporary Christianity.

King was aware that he stood in the tradition of both the Old Testament prophets who railed against injustice, and of the New Testament apostle Paul, who through letters instructed Christians on what it means to be a follower of Jesus, to work for justice and an end to oppression.

He immediately rejected the criticism that he, who did not live in Birmingham, had no business leading demonstrations there.

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here,” he wrote. “Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot idly sit by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham,” he wrote.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The letter signed by Christian and Jewish clergy especially disappointed King because those were the people who he thought would be his allies in the fight for justice.

“I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” he said.

“I have reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilors or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direction action;’ who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating that absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” he writes. “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Just as Paul’s letters written to particular congregations at a particular time still have something to say to us 2,000 years later, so I believe King’s words will challenge Christians and the Church for centuries to come.

As I reread the entire letter this week, something I would encourage all of you to do, I was particularly struck by the passage we read today, a passage that directly quotes Jesus.

“Jesus says, ‘Love your enemy,’ King wrote. “It’s significant that he does not say, ‘Like your enemy.’ Like is a sentimental thing, an affectionate thing. There are a lot of people that I find difficult to like. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like them.

“But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like.”

All of us have heard these words before. But I can’t think of a better time to hear them again than now, when we stand at the cusp of what promises to be another vitriolic year of political campaigning, a time when it seems that the very air we breathe is filled with toxic rhetoric of hate.

Think about those who spew this hate, particularly those with whom we disagree. Is it possible to love them? I admit that I at times I find that to be an impossibly tall order. 

But first Jesus, and then King, insist that is what we must do. 

“You love everybody because God loves them,” King writes. 

It is as simple, and as hard, as that.

One of the most amazing things about King is that he truly tried to live out Jesus’ commandment. I haven’t read all of his writings or listened to all of his speeches and sermons, but I have read a good deal of them. And nowhere — not one time — are there words of vitriol and hate, even though he was often the target of such rhetoric and the violence that toxic words inspired.

That does not mean that such rhetoric and hatred can be condoned. It does mean recognizing the humanity of those involved, and realizing that there is the possibility of change and redemption.

“Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and violenc in the world,” King writes. “That is the tragedy of hate….Somebody must have faith enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.”

Maybe that somebody is us.


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