Like many Americans preparing for the Martin Luther King national holiday on January 19, it was a good occasion to reread the civil rights leader’s epic 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” That Letter (“letter” being a title that is technically accurate, but woefully negligent) is a masterpiece because it accomplishes both exemplary expository style and opinion-shifting content. That’s a rare feat.
While enjoying King’s style and content it soon became apparent how similar that very notable style and content is to some of the letters from Mother Cabrini. Known for her actions and not her words, the Saint’s words nonetheless have a gravitas and flair that is often overlooked (as I’ve written about in previous blog posts). When some of her writing is placed alongside King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” even a casual observer (like myself) will notice resemblances in content and style.
First, let’s consider the easier of the two: content. King’s Letter is a both a call to action (albeit nonviolent action) and a justification for that action. It instructs and informs. More importantly to the point here, it instructs and informs from an explicitly Christian ethos. Likewise, if pressed to describe Mother Cabrini’s writings, there is no better description than “she instructs and informs from an explicitly Christian ethos.”
That alone wouldn’t be enough to warrant comparison, as there are many (perhaps too many) Christian writers who instruct and inform from a Christian ethos. However, King and Cabrini are writing about Americans being denied full access to America. In King’s case, he is addressing the racial segregation of the South and the appalling, criminal mistreatment of Blacks, whereas Cabrini is often addressing the social segregation and criminal mistreatment of immigrants. King and Cabrini are advocating for different populations that are both excluded from participation in American society.
Also, King and Cabrini are incredibly patriotic, lauding America for its innate freedoms and opportunity. As some civil rights and immigrant leaders did (and do), neither Cabrini nor King are calling for separation from society, but instead are calling for full inclusion in American society. They both demand that their segregated peers (Blacks and immigrants) be given the full and equal opportunity to participate in the American freedom that they themselves love. They ask for nothing but level ground and equal footing. After that, the responsibility falls to the individual to employ that freedom for their own happiness.
Perhaps because both are religious leaders addressing other religious persons or perhaps because their worldviews are so woven with their faith, both cite Christian scripture to add gravity. In particular, both reference specific action from scripture and not just abstraction. (E.g., King: “Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world.” Cabrini: “….anticipated joy of a martyrdom, like the one St. John the Baptists had to suffer, for the same cause.)
And King and Cabrini write with a natural authority that comes from an authentic, deep conviction in their beliefs. This leads us to the second similarity—style.
King is terse in his Letter, so much so that he knows his tenacious tone will be used against him and so acknowledges and justifies his own urgency. Though he is writing to his peers in ministry, he writes like a man instructing his apprentices, chastising them for failures and correcting their course. Cabrini does this too, though she is often doing exactly that—writing to the women subordinates who joined her order, and so instructing them. She too is terse, sometimes prickly. But like King, her tenacity doesn’t divest itself of elegance.
That elegance is what makes moments so magical in their writing. Both King and Cabrini know—and demonstrate—that poetic flare at opportune moments drives home exposition like nothing else. Just when you feel you’ve had enough finger wagging in your face, they disarm you with a quotable jewel of prose that is so good you wish you’d wrote it.
And after all, wishing you’d had written something you are reading is really the barometer for excellence in writing. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Mother Cabrini’s letters leave you wanting more and wishing your own pen was so powerful and wonderful.
I am offering here mere glimpses of the panoramic similarities between King and Cabrini’s writings. Books could be penned about their pens’ resemblances. One parallel is for certain—they succeed as authors because they move the reader’s heart and mind to a new place that is exactly where King and Cabrini wanted. They change people and the world with their words and when that happens, their words become bigger than the world they inhabit. That is what makes them a Saint and a King.
Some examples of the aforementioned:
King: Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.
Cabrini: The Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as indicated by its title, has as its purpose the spread of the Reign of Jesus Christ throughout the earth. The mission of the institute is worldwide evangelization—to inflame all people with the love of Jesus Christ without distinction of race or nationality, embracing everyone be they rich or poor, educated or uneducated. We hope to expand our outreach to the ends of the earth.
King: Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
Cabrini: The field is so vast to do good for our poor Italians who are abandoned and very much looked down upon by the English speaking public.
King: Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.”
Cabrini: Do not be afraid of offending those who approach you or of being importunate when speaking the truths of faith. If you are filled with the charity of Christ, coupled with strength and energy, no one will take offence but will rather be conquered.
King: For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Cabrini: At present we are here and we must stay because an institute which has been invited would never lose face by turning back.
King: There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.
Cabrini: Courage, daughters, now is the time to show that you are true missionaries!
For the full text of Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, visit, http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
By Christopher Grosso, Senior Writer, Cabrini College