In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. strikes me not just as a good moral voice of his day, but as a prophetic vessel of change. I often thought to the letters of Paul and the teachings of Jesus as Dr. King boldly, yet eloquently, addressed head on the existing evils of segregation and racism. His deep heart cry for justice resounded throughout the letter, while love for his enemies was also on display. I could reflect on countless points of the letter, but I want to focus on three areas: 1) the integrity of Dr. King's movement, 2) his appeal to the privileged, and 3) his disappointment and prophetic utterance concerning the white church and its leadership.
Dr. Martin Luther King had a very intentional and organized mode of action. He was not in Birmingham on a whim. Nor was his group of affiliates running on bitterness and adrenaline. There were four identified components of their nonviolent campaign, one of which was self-purification. I imagine the fear of the Lord moved upon them to search their own hearts first, including the level of their surrender. They knew that bitterness is defiling (Heb. 12:15), and they realized that what lay ahead would require them to utterly die to self. The fact that Dr. King conducted workshops for this very purpose of self-inspection struck me. Integrity and purity are required at the foundation of any true social justice movement. Social justice is a hot topic currently, but initiatives that fail to be founded upon the rock of Christ will ultimately yield little fruit. A common prayer of mine lately has been that God would raise up African Americans as a sign and a wonder to this nation as He heals their hearts and empowers them to love and forgive their white brothers and sisters. Another aspect of the campaign's integrity was the proper channeling of resentment and frustrations. They were angry, yet they refused to sin. Dr. King was well aware that these feelings require an outlet, but in wisdom he orchestrated it in such a way that the pain and frustrations rose up as a necessary societal tension. He also spoke to the future, predicting what might happen if those feelings were suppressed: "...millions out of frustration and despair will seek solace in black nationalist ideologies—leading to a frightening racial nightmare". I believe we can see symptoms of this very issue today when violent protests breakout and the cry of the African American community goes unaddressed.
Dr. King stated in his letter that "Privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily." The oppressor and the privileged do not have to feel the pain of the oppressed, nor do they often want to. As a matter of fact, just taking the time to sit and listen (as with the unjust judge in Lk. 18) may potentiate irritation and annoyance. But Dr. King appealed to the hearts of his readers as he articulately poured out the horrifically painful experiences of his people. He was explaining why the command to "wait" was no longer an option. It was time for them to cry out as the persistent widow did. Still today—African American men, women, children, and families—are waiting for the oppressors and the privileged to stand up and use their influence to make a difference (Dr. King referred to it as "the channel through which our just grievances [he had hoped] could reach the power structure"). First, however, these groups have to care. All too often the comfort of privileges leads to the apathy of the heart. Dr. King believed that the white moderate, who was more devoted to order than to justice, was the greatest hindrance in his strive towards freedom. As I have reflected on this, I have been asking the Lord how the hearts of white moderates across the nation can be moved with compassion and zeal for justice. One aspect which I believe is that as the Holy Spirit awakens His remnant in this hour, social justice will be at the forefront. It will be a work of the Holy Spirit, along with the tension and pressure that is rising. As a spirit of revival falls, men and women will repent to God and to their brothers for their silence and apathy. The church will work together to establish His kingdom here on the earth--in society.
Finally, I want to address what I believe was a prophecy about the church in America. King stated,
"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 relevance for the 20th century. I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust."
Dr. King was deeply disappointed in the white church and its leadership for not taking on its God-given role as a source of support for their just cause. I believe that years of the church's removal from societal involvement has helped to produce the disgust in our generation towards the church. Statistics show that the number of Americans who identify themselves as Christians is declining, while the number of those who do not identify with any religious group is inclining (Pew Research Center, 2015). What is admirable about a church who claims Jesus, love, and compassion, yet ignores systemic, persistent injustice--if not participating in it? I am grateful for the opportunity to look back on history in order to gain a greater perspective on today's racial tension and injustice. Ultimately, Dr. King's hope was not in the white church, the activation of the white moderate, or in nonviolent campaigns, but his hope was in the eternal will of God. I thank God that we have that same hope for today, and I pray that we will all rise up and take our place within that good, pleasing, and perfect will.
Pew Research Center. (2015, May 11). America’s Changing Religious Landscape. Retrieved October 22, 2017, from http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/
The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. (2015, November 20). FULL FILM: A Reading of the Letter from Birmingham Jail. Retrieved October 25, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__cT397uOak