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From Jail: A Convicting Sentence

June 29, 2016

 This issue of The Pillar is about one sentence—a long, tough sentence—a sentence by a convict that is very convicting.
 
It’s a sentence that emerging leaders studied this past weekend at The Witherspoon Fellowship.  While global headlines spoke of political turmoil and financial uncertainty, in Brisbane a number of Year 10-12 students were cultivating skills of effective leadership.
 
These emerging leaders engaged in Socratic discussions, a rapid-fire debate competition (aka “speed debating”), an Oxford-style formal hall, and ballroom dancing.  And, once again, participants did battle in a public speaking competition in the role of either a coach delivering a half-time pep talk or a courtier wooing a princess!  The goal in all these activities was to hone—albeit indirectly—skills that are important for leadership. 

 

Scenes from this past weekend's Witherspoon Fellowship, attended by representatives from 15 different Queensland schools.

 

One of those skills is effective writing, which led us to examine Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  One point we emphasized is that good writing appeals to ethos, pathos and logos—that is, to moral conscience and the emotions as well as to logical reasoning.  MLK, Jr.’s Letter incorporates all three: he appeals to logos when distinguishing between just and unjust laws, to ethos when citing moral authorities like Jesus, St. Paul, and Abraham Lincoln, and to pathos when articulating the pain of racism in segregated 1960s America. 
 
Another point we discussed with emerging leaders was the ability to convey profound ideas in short, simple statements.  A case in point is King’s famous line “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Part of what makes this statement so memorable is its brevity. 

 

What, then, should we make of another line that follows shortly thereafter, totalling 318 words!  This laborious single sentence follows the observation that “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dart of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’”  King then describes in very personal terms what it’s like to be disrespected, excluded and abused because of skin colour … but he keeps the description going on and on and on.  In other words, to convey what it feels like to wait for so long, King writes a sentence that forces his readers to do exactly that: to wait for resolution!  He masterfully combines form and content precisely by writing a sentence that is unusually lengthy … and tough … and uncomfortable.

 

(You can read the entire Letter here; the noted sentence is found in paragraph 12.) 

We believe the Letter from a Birmingham Jail is convicting—in terms of what it reveals about injustice as well as how it models effective communication about it.
 
Good leaders have the ability to cast a vision clearly and persuasively.  Yet how many popular leadership programs on the market today take time to focus on good grammar and rhetoric?  Developing emerging leaders by having them read Shakespeare, discuss Socrates, study good writing, and learn ballroom dancing is rather countercultural ... but then again, so was Martin Luther King, Jr.  (By the way, he studied the liberal art of theology!)  At the Millis Institute, we're convicted that a strategic way to cultivate leadership is an education in the liberal arts.

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