Please Oh God, Don’t Let this be Us – Thoughts on the Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Blessings to you on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday.  I want to encourage all of us to see this day as way more than just a day off of school or work.  It is the opportunity to remember the ministry of Dr. King and the plight of injustice that is part of the fabric of our country, whether we want to admit it or not.  Among all the speeches made and documents he wrote, the one that has both challenged and haunted me the most is his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The letter was was written in 1963 during peaceful protests and demonstrations against segregation in Birmingham.  Dr. King had come to Birmingham for the protest and was arrested.  While he was in jail leaders from the city met the peaceful protesters with fire hoses and attack dogs.  Meanwhile, white clergy from the city who somewhat agreed with the cause, nonetheless they published a letter titled “A Call for Unity,” decrying the protests and telling those suffering from injustice to wait and not to protest.  They said that the fight for equality and justice should take place in the courts and not in the streets.  King’s letter is a response to that letter.

The reason this letter so deeply challenges me is because I know that I can see an issue of injustice, and even say a few words about it acknowledging it exists, while at the same time really doing nothing in the Gospel about it.  Furthermore, I too often fight more for my comfort as a believer in Jesus than for the cause of justice and righteousness.  I realize that had I lived and been a church leader in 1963, I may have been tempted to join the chorus calling for unity at the sake of what was right, and I may have stayed silent and non-involved when I should have heard the call of the Gospel to speak clearly and stand with my brothers who were hurting.  So my prayer on this Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday is that in 2018, this would not be us.

So, on this day, let me encourage you to take some time to read and think.  You might read the entire text of the letter (linked above) or just this key passage.  To learn more, watch the video at bottom of the page.  And if you are a follower of Jesus, realize that we are called to care about all issues of justice, because, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.


Comments are closed.