Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The 50th Anniversary of King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

When you think of the most influential Christian leader of the 20th century, who do you think of? I'm not sure how I would have answered that question a couple months ago, but I probably would not have thought of Martin Luther King Jr.. Sure, I know he was a great leader, but until recently, I didn't quite grasp the impact he had and how that impact was so shaped by a theological vision.

Yes, MLK Jr. was a civil rights leader, but he was also a brilliant man who had a firm grasp of theology, philosophy, politics, and ethics. Beyond that he was a pastor who cared deeply about how the gospel applied to the injustices of his day.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." He wrote the letter to eight white pastors of his day as he sat in a jail cell in the most racially segregated city in America at that time. He was getting feedback from church leaders (who were white) to stop causing so much controversy over segregation, and to wait it out. Some day, they said, it will get better.

Part of Reverend King's letter specifically addressed this call to wait. Check out these powerful words:
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-country 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 go 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. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
I hope you feel even a fraction of the weight that this paragraph carries. He and the rest of the black community had been fighting against this sense of "nobodiness" for so long and they were understandably tired of it.

The famous phrase, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" also comes from this letter. From Atlanta, he saw the injustices that were happening in Birmingham. He talks about how we are all "caught in an inescapable network of mutuality," so he cannot sit idly by and do nothing. In response to this injustice he begins to teach people the power of nonviolent action, which forces a community who has long refused to negotiate to finally confront the issues of injustice.

As I thought about this, I began to see some parallels between King's thought and what Isaiah says of the coming Messiah. Isaiah says that he was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. Like a sheep before his shearers, he was silent. As Christ came to confront THE injustice of the world (the broken relationship between humanity and the Creator) through humility and nonviolence, so King stood up against the powers of the world, and through nonviolence, shed light on one of the greatest injustices of our time.

Through this letter, I have become so thankful for Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. His courage is inspiring to me and his faithfulness to stand up for justice in the midst of opposition and oppression is convicting. I'm so thankful God used him to bring a glimpse of the coming kingdom to this world through the breaking of these racial barriers. Because of this, the gospel is lived out in a fuller way. As Paul tells us in Galatians 3, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, or male nor female. We are all one in Christ.

Click here to read the letter. I highly encourage it.