Why MLK’s Letter From Birmingham Jail is a Timely Read

“Do not say, ‘Why is it that the former days were better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this.” Ecclesiastes 7:10 

Why are we so inclined to think that our moment is always the most pressing? The most divided? The most troubled? I think there are many reasons for this unbiblical attitude, yet I believe one of the most common reasons is our simplistic and limited engagement with the past. Were we to read the works and stories of those who have gone before us I think we would start to realize, not only that there is nothing new under the sun, but how many great lessons our forebears learned that we fail to heed. Nowhere have I found this more apparent for our current moment than reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s short letter, written in a jail cell, to several Southern ministers who had critiqued some of Dr. King’s recent actions. It’s stunning how much we can learn form Dr. King in just this very short treatise. Here I’d like to highlight four short lessons that we Christians can learn directly and indirectly from this oh so relevant letter. 

Charitable Dialogue

What must it be like to be critiqued by several pastors for your actions, driven in large part by your Christian convictions, that have landed you in an unjust jail cell? I can’t imagine. Yet, this is exactly where King’s pen went to work, it is precisely where his heart showed the grace of Christ. 

Instead of embracing an “us versus them” mentality that responds to criticism in a harsh reactionary way, Dr. King appeals to his critics while longing for their realized brotherhood. He is not after them to merely change a law of segregation, but to have white ministers long for desegregation “because the Negro is your brother.”1 Indeed, he can even speak kindly to those to whom he writes, recognizing their concerns while still arguing against them, he can say, “I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth.”2 Even more, he can express his deep “disappointment with the white church” while still stating that there are “notable exceptions” and praising the ministers he is writing to for their “significant stands on this issue.” Dr. King was not “all or nothing,” he gave praise where praise was do, and rebuke where rebuke was do. He spoke gently with his opponents, viewing them as brothers to be won over, not enemies to be crushed. What would our dialogue look like if we followed his example? 

Rich Engagement with our Christian Past

Too often our chronologically snobbish chin is held so high that our gaze does not so much as glance at the history of the Church, yet Dr. King defends his arguments while looking at and drawing from both the deep well of Biblical history and and the wide ocean of Church history. How clearly Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego gave themselves over to civil disobedience in obedience to God. Are there more powerful cries for justice to be found than those within the prophets? What a powerful example the early Christian believers have set for us as they “rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”In words from a more recent voice, “Our ecclesial-historical amnesia is so acute, our Old Testament literacy so anemic, and our cultural intelligence so low, that we associate social justice with Karl Marx rather than the Prophet Isaiah.”5 May we follow Dr. King in looking to the deep roots of our past for justification of our present actions. 

Radical and Organized Commitment to Nonviolence

Although the need to have “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5:24) is always with us in this fallen world, we must reject not only a complacent attitude of “do nothingism,” but also the violent solutions driven by hatred. Indeed, we must follow “the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.”6 And we must not have a knee-jerk reaction that simply protests at the slightest potential provocation. No. The “nonviolent campaign” is driven by a “collection of facts to determine whether injustices exist,” then “negotiation,” and we must not forget “self-purification,” and then, and only then, are we ready for “direct action.”7 Indeed, “Nonviolence demands that the means we use be as pure as the ends we seek.”8 And all of these actions are to be closed with signatures to our opponents addressing ourselves as “Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood.”9 Any action we take, is not merely for our own benefit, but for the good of society, the unity of humankind, for the purity and flourishing of the Church, and for the glory of God; and yes, our actions of resistance are even done at the service of our enemies, for to win them to the side of justice, even if we must suffer unjustly, is an expression of our love for them (Matthew 5:44).

Christianity and Biblically Oriented Social Justice

In deep disappointment Dr. King “wept over the laxity of the church,”10 and, despite others he knew whose disappointment had “turned into outright disgust,”11 he still loved the church. “How could [he] do otherwise?”12 From a spirit of unity despite the gross failure of so many of his “white moderate”13 brothers, his words against the many misters that said to him, and those like him: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern,”14 echo, or perhaps thunder, into our present age. Can a heart that has been moved by the Gospel, that wonderful reality of God sending his Son to take on human flesh, to serve, suffer, and die for his enemies, to reconcile a hostile people to himself, giving us life freely while calling us to the highest expressions of love to both God and neighbor, could a heart that has grasped that reality have no concern for the suffering, injustice, and mistreatment of one’s neighbor? Or even of one’s enemy? Could one who has been purchased by the blood of the Lamb, not pour out their own for even the least of the human race? No matter how inconvenient? No matter how controversial? No matter how unpopular? Social justice is not the Gospel, but the implications of the Gospel, if truly believed, demand a concern beyond the patronizing for social justice issues that have legitimate grounding in the Christian Scriptures as expressions of love to both God and neighbor. 

As Dr. King walked around the South in his day, as he beheld the high steeples and grand displays of building after building that claimed the name of Christ as King, he could not help asking, “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?”15 He had to ask. He couldn’t help but wonder. Where was the salt? Where was the light? Where were the good deeds that would cause even a watching world to glorify the one true God? (Matthew 5:16) Where were these people who were zealous for good works? (Titus 2:14) Where was this chosen people, this royal priesthood, this people for God’s own possession? (1 Peter 2:19) Why were they not washing their brother’s feet? (John 13) He was hungry and given nothing to eat. He was thirsty and given nothing to drink. He was a stranger and not invited in. Naked and not clothed. Sick and in prison, yet not visited. To the extent that it was not done for him, it was not done for Christ (Matthew 25:31-46). 

Reading Dr. King should break and convict our hearts. It should breed empathy and be a cause for serious critical self-reflection. It is a reminder that the Church, following in its own deeper historic footsteps, should be the thermostat for social change and progress. We need not join in on each new woke crusade, yet we must not isolate ourselves in self-protection and self-justification as our neighbor lies broken crying out to us for help. We must listen. Both to them, and to Scripture. And certainly there is time where we must act. At the very least, do we truly care? Do we weep at oppression and moan over injustice? If we do not have eyes to see, do long for eyes that do? Are we willing to be uncomfortable for our neighbor’s sake? Ought we not to tremble at the examples of laxity that haunt our Christian past? Ought we not to ache for that same faith, those same works, given to and produced by those many saints who extend our cloud of witnesses? Indeed, “human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God.”16  May we work harder than them all, yet not us, but the grace of God within us (I Corinthians 15:10). As a witness to this world. As a witness to each other. As a reflection of our King. May we labor. May we work. May we serve and sacrifice. Not to earn grace, but because we believe in the grace that has been given to us.

And if I, or Dr. King, “have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience. I beg you forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”17

Notes:

  1. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From Birmingham Jail, (Great Britain: Penguin Books, 2018), 22
  2. Ibid. 1
  3. Ibid. 21
  4. Ibid. 24
  5. Brad Edwards, “The Church of Individualism,” Mere Orthodoxy, September 8, 2020, https://mereorthodoxy.com/the-church-of-individualism/ 
  6. King Jr. Letter From Birmingham Jail, 17
  7. Ibid. 3
  8. Ibid. 27
  9. Ibid. 30
  10. Ibid. 23
  11. Ibid. 25
  12. Ibid. 23
  13. Ibid. 13
  14. Ibid. 22
  15. Ibid. 23
  16. Ibid. 16
  17. Ibid. 29

Photo by Lloyd Blunk on Unsplash

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