On April 16, 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote an open letter from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in response to a statement made by eight Alabama clergymen critical of King’s non-violent protest efforts and calling him an “outsider” and a troublemaker. What follows is a part of Dr. King’s brilliant reply:
“I am in Birmingham because injustice exists here. Just as the prophets of the 8th century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far afield, 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 hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid [Acts 16:9].
“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds…
“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights….One may well ask, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’…
“Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake [Dan. 3:14-18]. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.
“In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice I have heard many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,’ and I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes a strange, unbiblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular…. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love….
“There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians 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. 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,’ [Phil. 3:20-21] called to obey God rather than man [Acts 5:29]. Small in number, they were big in commitment…. By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide, and gladiatorial contests.
“Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound [1 Cor. 14:8]. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.
“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
“Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”*
Dr. King’s prophetic letter to fellow pastors and church leaders is not only a lost episode in American history, it remains a challenge to the church today.
Read and Reflect: Read Daniel 3 and reflect on the civil disobedience of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and compare that with Dr. King’s argument.
Prayer: Almighty God, we thank you that righteousness and justice is the foundation of your throne. Forgive us for not joining you in the mission to advance those twin objectives. Thank you for Dr. King’s prophetic word that calls us back to that mission, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.
*Source Citation: The full text of the letter can be found here: http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/frequentdocs/birmingham.pdf.