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A jailhouse letter that changed a nation

God loves us and He is for us, but we are not always for him.

Few moments in history are a more vivid illustration of that fact than the occasion for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter from the Birmingham jail in April 1963. He was in jail after being arrested during a nonviolent protest against racial segregation. And he wrote this open letter in response to a letter signed by eight white Birmingham clergymen who were appealing to Dr. King to show more patience and to allow the local citizens to negotiate for justice through the proper channels.

Dr. King’s open letter from jail was widely circulated throughout the summer of 1963. It has been the subject of both criticism and admiration for over fifty years, but it remains a remarkable tutor for the church as we consider our responsibility to “Speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of all who are dispossessed” and to “speak up, judge righteously, and defend the cause of the oppressed and needy” (Prov. 31:8-9).

Everyone should read the letter from the Birmingham jail, but below are a few excerpts along with eight lessons that well-applied can still change a nation.

Start and stay humble.

“But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” 

The eight Birmingham clergymen were standing on the sidelines while Dr. King and others were fighting the good fight. It would have been easy for him to vilify them because of their perspective and their complacency. Instead, he took a humble posture and stayed on the high road. Even after making his case, Dr. King ended his letter with humility and kindness. We never effect positive change through disrespect. God will sooner use our humility than our indignity to turn our enemy into an ally.

Assume the problem of injustice is your problem.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Dr. King was criticized as “outsider” from Atlanta. When it came to the issue of justice, he did not see himself as an outsider anywhere and neither should we. We are our brother’s keeper, and we do not have the luxury of waiting until injustice is on our doorstep to act. Those who are far from us are no less our responsibility than those who are just across the street.

Speak up sooner than later.

“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair.”

Dr. King believed the time for waiting was over. Delay seems to give advantage to the oppressor rather than to the oppressed. If we saw a man beating a woman in the street we would run immediately to give aid. Injustice calls with an urgent cry. It is desperate. Not every need is a call from God to act, but let us avoid the temptation to close our ears and look the other way. Let us not pit intentionality against urgency. Let us not discount the legitimacy of the need simply because it is right here upon us. It could be that the cries for help echo in our ears because the ability to help is in our hands.

Appeal to the highest good.

“One may well ask, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws.”

Scholars and legal minds have used Dr. King’s letter as a reference point for understanding and applying what is known as natural law. Just because something is legal does not mean it is right. Dr. King reminded his readers that Hitler’s actions were legal; but there is a higher law, the law of God, that rightly condemned Hitler’s actions.

Laws established in the state house are always subject to the law of God established in heaven and recorded in the Bible. And it is in the society’s best interest when the people of God know the difference and champion the causes nearest to the heart of God.

Prepare to suffer for doing right.

“One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”

According to Dr. King, to obey God occasionally means we disobey the civil authorities over us. We know this as civil disobedience. But when we disobey an unjust law, we do not hide, we do not act in a spirit of hatred, and we do not expect to be above the legal consequences of our actions. Sometimes suffering is required on our part to relieve the suffering of others.

Take action to make a difference.

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”

We do not rescue the oppressed from the lukewarm waters of compromise. Justice is not a call to agreement. It is a call to action. Action topples the status quo in our churches and sometimes puts a strain on our most cherished friendships. It is our action not our sentiment, however, that makes the difference for the people who are hurting the most.

Mobilize the church to champion justice.

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Par 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.”

“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.”

Jesus showed compassionate attention to the poor, the captive, the weak, and the hurting. “The least of these” was not a secondary consideration. His public teaching was often in the context of His public service to people who needed help. The church without mercy is the church without a voice.

Dr. King believed churches would rally together for the cause of racial equality. He was wrong. Many churches sat this one out. And we learned again that neutrality is never neutral in its effect. God created every person, ascribed dignity to every person, and sent His Son to redeem every person, so justice is not something the church supports. Justice is central to our Gospel mission.

Never give up.

“If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

Dr. King faced opposition from the right and from the left. People he counted on did not come through. His family felt the pains of persecution. Despite many reasons to despair, Dr. King did not. He knew his cause was just and that his God was faithful. We too can carry on with great confidence that when we work for justice, God accomplishes much.

So let us persevere in our fight for the unborn. Let us walk on in our advocacy for the orphan and widow. Let us stay the course to rescue the vulnerable from the sex traffickers. Let us keep working to starve hunger in our day. And may the next generation look back with admiration and look ahead with inspiration in the way we sacrificed to defend the most helpless among us and to speak up for those who had no voice.

This article was originally published here.

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