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Theology faculty member awarded $30,000 for ‘Prophet with a Pencil’ initiative

| By Ashleigh Aldridge
Arthur Sutherland, Ph.D., associate professor of theology and dean of the Class of 2020
Arthur Sutherland, Ph.D.

Arthur Sutherland, Ph.D., associate professor of theology and dean of the Class of 2020, has been awarded $30,000 for his initiative Prophet with a Pencil: The Continuing Significance of Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’ The University of Virginia’s Project on Lived Theology has awarded the funding for the initiative, which comes as the 50th anniversary of King’s death approaches in April. 

Conceptualized and organized by Sutherland, Prophet with a Pencil will examine the theological framework of King’s letter. The initiative includes a task force of 10 scholars and practitioners who will meet in Birmingham in June for a three-day research retreat at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

During the retreat, the members of the group will share drafts of their essays, each of which will be based on a passage of the letter they selected, focusing on the historical context of what was happening in Birmingham, Ala., at the time King penned the message in 1963 and what the selected passage means theologically. The task force will also meet with surviving participants of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963, and host a public forum to exchange dialogue and ideas with civil rights activists. Sutherland intends to compile the writings of the task force members and publish them as a volume of essays. 

Written with a borrowed pencil, King’s letter is often taught in American colleges and universities for its rhetoric and parallels to Greco-Roman oratory. The task force will focus on the theological ideas and questions raised by King. 

“King's letter goes beyond rhetoric and actually begs for a theological critique of Christian faith and practices,” Sutherland said. “The letter admonishes a church, which in King’s words, had ‘a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.’”

Members of the task force will tour Birmingham’s historic Civil Rights District including the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the site of the bombing that killed four young, black girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—in 1963. The group will also visit Kelly Ingram Park, which served as a staging area for many demonstrations held in Birmingham during the civil rights movement, and take a bus tour of areas of the city where infamous bombings occurred, including the home of the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, a Baptist minister, activist, and friend of King’s.

After the gathering, pastors, congregants, seminarians, students, and theologians from around the world will be able to read the essay collection and participate in the discussion of the relevance and significance of the words of King’s letter for the church today through Prophet with a Pencil’s forthcoming website.

“This letter has continuing relevance for things today. When King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ he was talking about the web of mutuality and interrelationships. If there is injustice in South America, even though I may not be in Buenos Aires or La Paz, I am connected to that,” Sutherland said. “The letter calls us to think about others.”

The task force retreat will take place June 8 to June 10, 2018. 

The mission of The Project on Lived Theology is to clarify the interconnection of theology and lived experience and promote academic resources in pursuit of social justice and human flourishing. The Project offers a variety of familiar and unconventional spaces where theologians, scholars, students, practitioners, and non-academics can demonstrate the importance of theological ideas in the public conversation about civic responsibility and social progress. The project was established in 2000 with a grant from the Lilly Endowment.
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