Reflection on “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”
Updated: May 4, 2021
By Danny Castiglione
*This is a repost from last January.
About 10 years ago I read Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” for the first time and as a white American Christian, a campus pastor, and a student of the Bible, I was pierced to the heart by Reverend King’s thoughtful and convicting words. It reads something like a letter that Paul wrote to exhort one of the churches mixed with Amos’ call for God’s people to repent and seek justice. It was written to pastors that for the most part had sat idly by, while their black brothers and sisters were experiencing gross injustices. Rev. King addresses these pastors (and other white American Christians as well) who tell him to “just keep waiting because eventually there will be equality”, by saying this:
For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights... Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.
Since reconstruction thousands of African-Americans were declared inferior, unjustly harassed, and even raped, murdered, and lynched by "church going people.” Instead of fighting for and with their African-American sisters and brothers, most of the White American Church sat by and believed the evil lies of racial superiority; often turning a blind eye as many of it’s adherents participated in the violence and gross injustices. Of course Rev. King could not wait, and he was right to urge the White American Church that it was time to repent of the sin of racism and fight for Biblical justice.
Toward the end of the letter Rev. King has a prophetic challenge for Church leaders and American Christians to be like the early Church and take action.
In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
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," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." 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. 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.
So what can we learn from Rev. King’s exhortation as we reflect on the past mistakes of the American Church? I came away with four action points:
1. Love is key- In what is commonly called The Great Commandment in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sums up the entire Law saying, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
In John 13, Jesus tells his followers, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul exhorts the local Christians, that even as a church if they appeared to practice all the spiritual gifts perfectly, they are worthless without love.
The question we have to ask ourselves as the Church today is how could so many people in the white American Church from America’s founding until Rev. King’s time be so unloving toward their Black brothers and sisters? This leads us to continually ask the question, are we doing things today that are unloving and go directly against our command to love others as ambassadors of Jesus?
2. Be humble, examine your heart, and then confess-Know that we all foster deep-rooted sin and prejudices. We cannot be a people who justify our sin by comparing ourselves with other sinners past or present; no person or group or generation is immune to the disease of selfishness.
3. Listen for the voices-Pay attention and listen to the people around you who are vulnerable and marginalized, and the ones being oppressed and exploited.
When God uses Isaiah to condemn Judah for the sin that will ultimately lead them into exile, he proclaims this:
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
16 Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. 17 Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:15-17)
James 1:27 proclaims, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” This passage sums up points 2 and 3 and leads us to point 4.
4. Keep fighting for Biblical justice- Micah 6:8 proclaims, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
As Jesus proclaims what the way of His Kingdom will look like in Matthew, he starts by teaching this:
3 “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. 4 God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth. 6 God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied. 7 God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God. 9 God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. 10 God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
You can’t do everything, but you can do something. Start by humbly listening and praying, then join with those God is using to act justly, show mercy, and work for peace.