We Are Guilty

By James W. Knight


A sermon delivered at the Rocky Ridge Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Alabama, September 22, 1963, by Reverend James W. Knight, the pastor.

The same sermon with Section IX added, was delivered at Birmingham Presbytery of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, meeting at Spring Creek Church, Montevallo, Alabama, October 29, 1963.



One of the best known parables of our Lord is the one which has come to be known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves, who robbed him and left him lying by the side of the road half dead. A priest and a Levite passed by the scene but failed to stop to render aid. Then a Samaritan came by and having compassion for the wounded man bound up his wounds and carried him to an inn where he could receive additional care.

To fully appreciate this parable we have to know something about the people involved. Let us look briefly at the characters in this story:

THE WOUNDED MAN-About this man we know little. We just know that he was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. Perhaps he was a Jewish merchant on a business trip.

THE THIEVES-Jesus tells us almost nothing about these men. Were there two or three or more? We don't know. We just know that they robbed and wounded the traveler.

THE PRIEST-Here was God's special servant. His duties were: to minister in the sanctuary before the Lord; to teach the people the Law of God; to help the people discover the divine will.

THE LEVITE-A Levite was a member of an Israelite tribe which was named after the third son of Jacob. This was the tribe from which the Israelite Priests came. Levites who were not Priests had other duties connected with the sanctuary. During the reign of David, the Levites were divided into four classes: assistants to the priests in the sanctuary; judges and scribes; gatekeepers; musicians.

THE SAMARITAN-When the assyrian ruler Sargon captured Samaria in 721 B.C., he carried many of the inhabitants into captivity. He replaced them with colonists from Babylonia, Hamath, and Arabia. The Samaritans became a mixed race.

During the time of Nehemiah, Manasseth, one of the Jewish priests, had married the daughter of Sanballet, a ruler of the Samaritans. Nehemiah cast Manasseth out of the Jewish community when he refused to divorce his Samaritan wife. Sanballet then erected a rival temple on Mt. Gerizum.

During the succeeding years, the Jews developed an intense hatred for the Samaritans. For example, when Jesus stopped at Jacob's well, the Samaritan woman was surprised that Jesus, being a Jew, would even speak to her.


We can imagine the buzz that went through the crowd when Jesus finished this story. No doubt many became rather angry because of it. He had offended in several ways. He had: 1) very little to say about the thieves, the ones who had actually committed the crime; 2) sharply rebuked a priest and a Levite, the religious leaders of the Jews; 3) made a hated Samaritan the hero of his story.

Why did Jesus not rebuke the thieves more severely? Certainly not because he condoned their action. There was no real need for him to rebuke them. Everyone was aware that they had broken both the civil and the moral law. They already stood condemned before the community.

Jesus' harshest rebuke is reserved for the priest and the Levite. Not because of something they had done but rather because of something they had failed to do. Here two of the leaders of the religious community came face to face with human suffering and need-and did nothing about it.

Were they too busy Were they afraid? Were they lacking in compassion and concern? Were they putting their ministry in the sanctuary ahead of needs of this injured traveler? Jesus doesn't tell us. We only know that they failed to render aid to one who was in need of their help. Theirs was the sin of omission.


Perhaps ours is too! On Sunday, September 8, 1963, two warnings came to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Each time a voice said, "This church is going to be blown up." But nothing happened! The congregation went on with the worship service as 16th Street congregations have been doing for over 90 years.

Sunday, September 15, was youth Sunday at the church. There were no bomb threats. About 200 people attended Sunday school. The subject of the lesson was: "The Love that Forgives." Four young girls were among those making preparation to participate in the morning worship service. The clock in the sanctuary recorded the time as being 10:22. Suddenly there was a loud explosion. Ten or more sticks of dynamite had blown a hole in the basement wall. The four young girls never finished their preparations. They were dead. Scores of others were injured.

A wave of terror began. The police were fired upon. Stones and bricks were thrown at motorists. A policeman killed a Negro boy. Two white boys on a motor scooter approached two Negro boys on a bicycle. Without a word being passed one of the white boys fired a gun a killed one of the Negro boys. A 16-year old white boy was seriously injured when struck by a brick thrown by a Negro youth. A group of high school students were on a bus returning from a football game. When they stopped at a traffic light, a girl who had her arm out of the window, was stabbed by a Negro youth. Fires were set over the city. Bomb threats were phoned to almost every school in the city. This was Birmingham the week of September 15-22. And this is only a partial list of the tragic events.


During all of this period many statements were made:

Mayor Boutwell said: "All of us are victims and most of us are innocent victims." How naive can we be?

Representative George Huddleston was much nearer the truth when he said; "All of us as citizens bear a part of the responsibility."

We bear this responsibility not because we committed these acts of violence but because we were content to sit back and do nothing in a time of crisis.

This is especially true of those who are supposed to give leadership in these areas: our elected government officials; the leaders of our business community; the ministers and elders in our churches.

We have created a vacuum in our leadership that has been filled by men of violence and hate.


We were chagrined a few months ago when a former Birmingham resident called Birmingham the "City of Fear." We may have even laughed when two local disc jockeys formed a couplet: "Birmingham the city of fear and Milwaukee the city of beer." But that was several months ago. No one is laughing now. Birmingham is a city of fear. I was afraid when I made my hospital calls on Sunday afternoon, the 15th of September. I was afraid on Tuesday night, September 17, when a minister friend came to town and called me to come to the motel and pick him up.


There have been 41 bombings in Birmingham in the past 16 years. One section of town has gained the name "Dynamite Hill." All of the bombings were apparently connected with the racial problem. No one has ever been arrested in connection with any of these bombings. Five churches and one synagogue have been bombed.

Birmingham is a city of fear today because the good people have stood back and let the hatemongers take over. We have created the kind of atmosphere in which the hatemongers can work. And because of our sins of omission we are as guilty as they.


It is time that we took some positive action! To date little of positive value has been advanced.

Governor Wallace came forth with a statement: "We are going to protect the lives and safety of all our people, both white and colored." One can only wonder what this is supposed to mean.

A downtown merchant said that it has become increasingly difficult to fill executive positions. "People with ability are afraid to come here," he said. Yet the business community has come forth with little of a positive nature.

The record of the religious community is even worse. A Baptist church in Alexander City passed a resolution deploring the bombing but the resolution insisted that the crime, "was the direct result of the unlawful interference of the federal government in the lives of our people."

How we love a scapegoat!

An official of the Greater Birmingham Ministers' Association pointed out that everyone in Birmingham could have an active part in sharing the burden of the tragedy by pausing daily at high noon for one minute of prayer during the week of September 16-22. We are not questioning the importance of prayer when we ask, "Is this all the church has to say to this situation?"

The ministers were asked to help raise reward money, but will catching and punishing the bomber or bombers solve the problem? Will it make us less guilty? The bomber may have been a Communist or a Negro, as many white people would like to believe. But whoever and whatever he is, he reacted to a basic sickness of our society. He didn't create it.


However, I think there are some positive things that we can do.

We can be realistic about the situation. Segregation is doomed! Like it or not this is something that must be accepted. As someone pointed out the other day, "The Negro people have passed the point of no return."

The days of Uncle Tom are gone! We can talk about a private school system and all of the rest but we know that the only result of all of this will be to delay the inevitable and to invite violence and disorder.

When the representative of the federal government and Governor Wallace met on the University of Alabama campus in June, the federal official said to the Governor: "You and I both know what the outcome of all of this will be. The students will be enrolled in this school." And they were!

We all know that segregation is no longer a live option. Our choice today is not between segregation and integration. It is between peaceful integration or integration with violence and disorder.

We can recognize that the race question is a moral problem. The church cannot select its members on the basis of color of their skin, and maintain a healthy relationship with God.

For too long the church has stood back and said, let the government do it, or let the business community handle it. This is a moral problem; this is the church's business!

If the church fails to assume her proper leadership role in this time of crisis, then she must accept her share of the responsibility for the tragedies that are sure to follow.

To be truly Christian at this point might wreck or kill some local churches. But a church that is not willing to die for the right is not worthy to be called a church.

We can speak out when it would be much easier to remain silent. We can speak out in favor of freedom for all men whatever their race or color.

We can speak out against the racists and hatemongers.

We can demand that our elected officials act in a responsible manner.

Alabama elected a Governor who based his whole campaign on prejudice.

And we have stood back while the hatemongers have urged him on.

"We have sown the wind, and we are reaping the whirlwind."

We can wage a continual war against the prejudice in our own lives. We are all prejudiced. But the same God that can help us conquer our fears and forgive our sins can help us overcome this prejudice.

One of our biggest problems is that we don't even recognize our prejudices oftentimes.

Hear this quotation from Boswell's "Life of Johnson."

"From this pleasing subject, he, I know not how or way, made a sudden transition to one upon which he was a violent aggressor; for he said, 'I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.' And his inflammable corruption bursting into horrid fire, he breathed out threatenings and slaughter; calling them, 'rascals-robbers-pirates,' and exclaiming he'd 'burn and destroy them.'"

"Miss Seward, looking to him with mild but steady astonishment, said 'Sir, this is an instance that we are always most violent against those whom we have injured.'"

"He was irritated still more by this delicate and keen reproach; and roared out another tremendous volley, which one might fancy could be heard across the Atlantic."

"During this tempest I sat in great uneasiness, lamenting his heat of temper; till by degrees, I diverted his attention to other topics."

This points up the fact that: Prejudice is not limited to the poor and illiterate. Samuel Johnson ws the most literate man of his day.

Perhaps this also explains why we are so prejudiced against the Negro.

"We are always most violent against those whom we have injured."

And we have injured them seriously and often by sins of omission rather than commission.

We are guilty!


Since this time there have been some other incidents. There have been two additional bombings.

There have been many meetings. But in the main there has been something of a lull.

A few people have spoken out but many of the so-called moderates have remained quiet.

Where are we as churchmen and churches?

Some hold to the idea that problems should be ignored. Ministers should "preach the gospel and refrain from discussing social issues." For them, religion is a matter of saving souls, and the church is an institution to build and perpetuate. But we can no more forget the horizontal dimension in the gospel than we can the vertical. We cannot love God unless we also love our neighbor.

Some hold that the things to do is just to keep quiet on the subject because preaching on it only creates problems for the minister. This kind of logic would also mean that the minister shouldn't preach on adultery, drinking, stewardship, gambling, and a host of other subjects.

I agree with Robert McAfee Brown when he says: "There can be no such thing as 'side line Christianity.' The Christian cannot stand on the edge of things looking on. He must be in the thick of the struggle, taking side and involving himself."

We often persuade ourselves as ministers that we are being realistic or practical or staying close to our people, when the truth of the matter is we are being cowardly. A Birmingham minister told the editor of The Christian Century recently, "As clergymen we will initiate nothing, but whenever the community acts constructively we will come out and commend the community." Is this being a spokesman for God?

Of course, all cannot fit into the same mold, anymore than did the prophets of Israel. Some must assume the role of an Amos. But there must also be the Hoseas. Our problem is not only the rights of a minority race. We must be just as concerned about the prejudice that poisons the spiritual lives of our people. But whatever role we fill-we must prophesy or lose our own souls.

The same is true of the church. The proper role of the church is that of a suffering servant. She must never forget this. In seeking to save her life she may well lose her soul. Dietrich Bonhoffer says; "When Christ calls a man, he calls him to come and die." The same is true of the church. A minister who is not willing to lose his pulpit, and a church that is not willing to accept a slashed budget, have never really answered this call.

Joan Baez performs Birmingham Sunday.

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Updated September 14, 2013