Letter from Birmingham Jail still challenges Church even after 50 years

Birmingham JailThis April marks the 50th anniversary of one of best treatises written during the Civil Rights movement: Martin Luther King, Jr’s letter from the Birmingham jail.  Although Dr. King wrote it on slips of newspaper while leaning against the wall and had it copy-edited a few weeks later, this shining jewel of an epistle still resonates today.

In the spring of 1963 the Birmingham bus boycott was in full affect.  America was in a state of unrest; a young Civil Rights movement teetered between violent outrage and Dr. King’s non-violent disobedience.  The movement warred with the white establishment, government, and local agitators.  Hundreds marched in the streets; many were thrown in jail.

While Dr. King was in jail for yet another protest, white clergy sent Dr. King a letter imploring Civil Rights leaders to cease civil disobedience, violent or otherwise.  Civil Rights and equality, they argued, would be won by different means, be it in the court system or through legislation.

Dr. King’s letter protested against that line of thought.  He believed that the black community had waited long enough, that the blank check of freedom guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence was long overdue for depositing.

In a scathing attack of this philosophy, he wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride towards freedom is not the White Citizens 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 an absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice …who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

I get goosebumps every time I read that.  For Dr. King, white clergy (and their churches) made up just one more cog in a broken system of injustice. They served as another layer of systemic dysfunction.

In a sermon entitled, “Transformed Nonconformist,” Dr. King explained that clergy and churches have hindered progress throughout history: “The erstwhile sanction by the church of slavery, racial segregation, war, and economic exploitation is testimony to the fact that the church has harkened more to the authority of the world than to the authority of God.”

Many times, churches and clergy are still guilty of failing to “let justice roll down like the waters” (Amos 5:24): Even now, clergy can promote hate-speech and prejudice.  Churches ignore economic policies that neglect the poor.  Clergy turn a blind eye to legislation that systematizes–and in many ways sensationalizes–violence, war, and disparity.

Yet, it is the church that gave birth to the Civil Rights movement–and many other social justice movements–in the past.  Women’s suffrage, the pro-life movement, and the abolition of slavery are all products of the church.  My own home church in Florida wasn’t perfect, but we still empowered poor women and women on the margins by protesting abortion clinics, funding pro-life clinics, and providing much needed solace to one-time prostitutes and adult entertainers throughout Broward County.

For all of the injustice churches have promoted throughout history, good and righteousness are still very much a part of the church’s fabric.  Even Peter, upon whom Jesus built the church, needed to learn how to minister effectively despite his own prejudices and sin (see Acts 10:9-16).  For all its oddity and failure, a church filled with sinners trying to find their way is still Christ’s church.

Of course, each church has its own political flavor, and I am in no position to answer Dr. King’s challenge–I too stand guilty of Dr. King’s charge that, “The ultimate tragedy is not the brutality of the bad people, but the silence of the good people.”

But the Easter season is a good time to consider God’s justice for this time and place.  We can debate politics and the Bible all we want; but, at day’s end, we cannot sit idly by in an ever-changing world in which the marginalized continue to get pushed to the margins, and the privileged continue to gain more prestige.  Let Easter justice roll down, O Lord, let Easter justice roll down; and give us the courage to find our way.

Published by Joe LaGuardia

I am a pastor and author in Vero Beach, Florida, and write on issues related to spirituality, faith, politics, and culture.

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