Opinion

The great letter from Birmingham and the lessons I have learned


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Every year around this time, one of the most important ways that I celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. is by reading a letter he penned within a jail cell in the heart of Birmingham, Alabama on April 16, 1963.

There is something strangely haunting about this letter. Maybe because I am fascinated by the courage it takes for a man to voluntarily travel into the lion’s den of racial injustice. Or the wit one needs to write such beautiful and compelling words while trapped alone within a cell. Maybe because it is as relevant today as it was in the days of his life. But no matter how many times I read this modern day epistle, I always find myself reflecting deeply on the brokenness of our culture and history and the courage that it takes to fight it.

Here are some truths that I have personally gleaned from this letter:

1. To fight for justice means to be opposed on every side.

Dr. King writes to “my fellow clergymen” and early in the letter, he explains why he has felt the need to respond. He’s writing, not to hypocrites nor enemies, but to “genuine men of good will”–fellow members of the same faith.

And as I have studied his life and his words, I realize that he spent just as much energy, maybe even more, engaging with those “within” as he did with those who were outside and “opposed.”

Dr. King was criticized certainly by his enemies but also by his supposed allies too. Some blamed him for the escalating hostility. Some blamed him for being too fanatical and extreme. Some, skeptical of his motives and intentions. But all agreed that he was unwavering, unavoidable, and unruly to injustice all the way until the end.

What’s fascinating to me, and this letter brings it out very clearly, is that one of his most regular oppositions was not those who were motivated by hate, jealousy, fear, or power, but those who were motivated by sensibilities. Dr. King would use many strategies to catalyze his message and mission but one thing that he would never do was compromise or negotiate for lesser justice.

And I think that creates enemies on all sides. And that reminds us that if we are to stand up for goodness and justice, then we need to account for two things: we cannot get in bed with injustice on any level and we will be criticized by evil and by the sensible, and possibly even those with “good” intentions.

2. Justice is defined only in the character of God

Dr. King was a man of faith. He was also a student of the history of his faith. He is often credited with the quote, “an unjust law is no law at all,” but if you read the letter, he is borrowing it from the great Christian thinker St. Thomas Aquinas.

Today, we are a world fractured in our understanding of justice. How do you determine what is good versus evil?

Many in Dr. King’s days may have accused him of pursuing noble ends in vigilante ways for much of his deeds were disobedient to the laws of those days.

But here is what he writes:

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. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.

Dr. King was unabashedly clear. There is only one way to determine whether to obey or disobey a law, and it wasn’t his. For him, God’s law was the only “north star” on his quest for justice.

For me, how to live with integrity and a good conscience is increasingly difficult. The waters have been stirred and I am seeing double all the time. Do I act? Do I not? Do I speak up? Or do I silently persevere? Some of my friends have chosen one or the other. Can I blame either? Some of my fellow faithful have spoken poorly or irresponsibly. Am I to cleave fellowship?

3. The true church is the church within the church.

Like a true prophet, Dr. King wrote this all those years ago,

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.

The authentic, sacrificial, just church is becoming rarer than ever. And because of that, we are migrating away from institutional religion and cultural Christianity.

But there is hope, and Dr. King shares it:

 I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.

God is faithful. He will always be with the true ekklesia because he is the true hope of the world. And today, I honor not just Martin Luther King but all those who followed Christ and broke away from conformity, security, power, and comfort to fight for freedom and justice.

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