Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was published in the Christian Century on June 12, 1963, as a response to a group of clergymen who argued that the fight for civil rights should be waged in the court system rather than through community organizing and protests. King, who’d been jailed for protesting without a permit, wrote the letter on scraps of paper and sent it to several publications. The New York Times Magazine turned it down. Liberation, the Christian Century, and The New Leader all published it over the span of a few weeks.
In the letter, King has some harsh words to say about the church (and in particular the white church of his day). He writes, “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.” These are blunt words. We might say of King the same thing that Jesus says of Nathaniel in the gospel story: “Here is a man in whom there is no deceit!”
These words apply to us too. There are numerous ways in which Christians continue to defend our society’s power structures, sometimes under the guise of faith. But King also noted the work for justice that some church members were doing in his day. “Let us hope,” he concludes, “that the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities.”
As we commemorate King’s birthday this year, it’s worth asking ourselves: how might we begin to lift the fog of misunderstanding and fear that blinds us to the world’s need? Might God be calling us—like Philip and Nathaniel, even like the child Samuel—to step out of our comfort zones and into the risk of discipleship?
Pastor Elizabeth Palmer