The Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Martin Luther King, Jr. has been much on my mind of late. And not just because yesterday marked the 45th anniversary of his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. Because I’ve been working on the inaugural edition of the online version of Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture course, which will start — as the face-to-face version has long started — with MLK writing his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

MLK in 1963
Martin Luther King, Jr. at a march in Washington, DC, four months after writing his letter from Birmingham – U.S. National Archives

We’re producing Ken Burns-style films for the online course, interweaving narration, interviews, and primary source readings over historical images. And the cold open for the first film in the course will place students alongside King in that jail cell, writing a letter that we describe as having two-fold significance.

First, “It stands as one of the classic documents of the civil-rights movement.” That’s how The Atlantic framed it yesterday, when it republished excerpts from the letter (which that same magazine originally reprinted back in 1963 as “The Negro is Your Brother”) in commemoration of the 45th anniversary of King’s death. It’s an eloquent protest of the injustice of Jim Crow system. To cite but one example from the excerpts featured by The Atlantic yesterday, here’s part of his response to the white clergymen who had expressed concern over a fellow pastor like King engaging in civil disobedience:

…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 plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness”–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 an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

But there’s a second significance to the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” one that The Atlantic didn’t even hint at.

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is not solely a civil rights document; it is a profoundly Christian reflection on human nature, divine justice, and the role of the church, drawing on Christian scriptures and centuries of Christian theological, anthropological, legal, and ethical reflection (as well as non-Christian sources like Socrates and Martin Buber). Indeed, it is because of those influences that King recognized injustice and was motivated and equipped to bring about change. (So I should have written: “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a civil rights document because of King’s profoundly Christian reflection on human nature, divine justice, and the role of the church.)

MLK, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) – U.S. National Archives

Consider one early edit made by The Atlantic, from his response to the white ministers’ concern that King is acting as an outsider to the situation in Birmingham (I’ll italicize the section omitted in its abridged version and replaced by ellipses):

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid [Acts 16:9-10]. Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Nearer the end of the long letter (and I do need to allow for the fact that The Atlantic needs to edit for length), there is no mention of how King directly addresses the implications for the Church itself of its remaining passive in the face of injustice. None of the following is included by The Atlantic (and here I’ll also condense for space, though I don’t think I’m losing or modifying the line of thought):

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. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” 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.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego
Early Christian painting of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – Wikimedia

The Atlantic certainly isn’t wrong to emphasize the Birmingham jail letter as a document from a crucial period in American history. And I don’t really suspect its editors of trying to conceal King’s Christianity:  they included King’s allusions to the great theologians Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, both of whom articulated a distinction between just and unjust laws rooted in the relationship of human law to the law of God, plus his appeal to the figures of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the Book of Daniel and the martyrs of the Early Church as models of civil disobedience motivated by “a higher moral law.” But they completely missed what philosopher Sara Shady, one of the Bethel professors we interviewed for our films, emphasized: that King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is nothing less than “the quintessential piece on a Christian thinking about his relationship to culture.”

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