Fifty years ago today, April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his famous “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.” He had been arrested on April 12 for participating in a non-violent demonstration against racial segregation in violation of an injunction, issued by a Circuit Court judge two days earlier, against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.”
Dr. King acknowledged that he had broken the law, but he defended his act (and rightly so) on the grounds that some laws are just and some are unjust. In his letter he wrote, “Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”
Since the injunction which he violated had been issued purely to prevent an otherwise legal and non-violent protest against the heinous offense of racial segregation, and was therefore unjust, King believed it was appropriate to disobey the law. Citizens have both a legal and moral responsibility, he wrote, to obey just laws. On the other hand, as he stated in his letter, “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.'”
I was in the eighth grade when Dr. King wrote this powerful letter from his Birmingham, Alabama, jail cell. Unfortunately, it would be many years before I would recognize the importance of the letter for the American civil rights movement and the cause of racial equality in this country.
In the past fifty years, much of the injustice and inequality which King so eloquently described in this letter has been overturned by statute and by a heightened social awareness which the new laws encouraged. Prejudice has not been eradicated, but it has been substantially reduced. At least in this area, things, though far from perfect, are significantly better than they used to be.
Still, any historical review of the 1960s and the American civil rights movement uncovers one regrettable reality. The conservative, evangelical church failed to take up this cause with enthusiasm. In this regard, Dr. King wrote,
I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen. …
In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. 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 other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical 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 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. …
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. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Though penned fifty years ago, those are potent, prophetic words for the twenty-first century American evangelical community. They were written by a man of unusual wisdom and uncommon courage who would, just five years later, pay the ultimate price for his convictions.
Thank you, Dr. King, for your words, both spoken and written, and for your sterling example of love in action. May God give us grace and strength to recognize the truth of your words, to emulate the courage of your example, and, in so doing, to faithfully demonstrate the character and values of the Kingdom of God.
Soli Deo Gloria
[Click here if you’d like to read Dr. King’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” in its entirety.]