HONORING “LETTER FROM A BIRMINGHAM JAIL
By Mark Liederbach with Tom Iversen
April 16th marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”
Many (including us) rank his letter as one of greatest pieces of American literature ever written. It is at once a powerful and elegant exposition of, and argument for, natural law as well as a sturdy call to repentance and an outright challenge for those who claim to be aligned with the Gospel of Jesus Christ to stand up and be counted in the fight for truth and justice. Fifty years later it is still poignantly relevant to a culture experiencing a full assault on notions of moral truth, ethical standards, religious conscience and rightly ordered freedom.
Sadly, too many evangelicals (both white and black) are unfamiliar with the masterpiece that is MLK Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” But consider some of the astounding statements found within:
Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But they went on with the conviction that they were a ‘colony of heaven’ and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the archsupporter 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 vocal sanction of things as they are.
The early Christians rejoiced when they were 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.
Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
In considering the philosophical and biblical sturdiness as well as the theological and moral challenge present in the Letter, we can’t help but be drawn to the words and thoughts of the Apostle Paul in Acts 17 that have a similar shaping influence on questions of justice, truth and morality. There, in Athens, on Mars Hill, while engaging the Greek philosophers and bringing the truth of the Gospel into the marketplace of ideas, Paul made this remarkable statement:
and God made from one blood every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being… (Acts 17:26-28. Italics added for emphasis).
In Him we live and move and have our being.
Ideas to rock the status quo and change a world.
One blood means there is only one race: the human one. Thus, racism is fundamentally stupid and unbiblical.
In Him we live and move and have our being means all humans will only find hope fulfilled and a satisfied soul as each person rightly aligns him or herself to the God who created all things for His own glory. And that can only happen through faith in Jesus Christ.
One important difference between Dr. King’s Letter and the Apostle Paul’s speech on Mars Hill relates to the audience to whom each was directed. It is interesting to note that Dr. King made his argument not so much to unbelievers or those who directly persecuted him, but to his brothers and sisters in Christ. His target audience was those tepid, timid “white churchmen [who] stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” and justify their inaction by saying “those are social issues with which the Gospel has no real concern.”
Perhaps the reason the words of MLK Jr. and Paul are so powerful and transcend notions of race or ethnicity is not because of the elegance of the writing or the catchiness of certain phrases, but rather (and far more importantly), because truth always transcends categories of race and ethnicity. And speaking truth in the face of injustice or ideas that stand in opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is one of the key ways true Christ followers must “take captive” and “destroy” ideas and speculations that stand against the things of God in their own heats and in the culture at large.
It is for this reason that at the 50 year anniversary of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” we are especially grateful to God for Dr. King and his calling all of us to be stand and fight not just for ending the moral stupidity of racism, but even more so, to be the kind of people who do not acquiesce to the ideas of culture but rather shape it for the Glory of God.
Fifty years ago Martin Luther King Jr. stood like a man and called all of us to be better. Fifty years later he is still calling us up to be men with him.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is timeless work of ethics, philosophy, theology, amazing writing … AND a good reminder of two astounding truths: 1) The Gospel is thicker than blood (and therefore skin color) and; 2) our lives and our world can only be transformed into wholeness through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Mark Liederbach is Professor of Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as Vice President for Student Services and Dean of Students, and is a Research Fellow for the L.Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture. Tom Iversen serves as an elder at North Wake Church in Wake Forest, NC.