Reading MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail in the Age of COVID

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Every year I teach Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail to my Rhetoric students. King is on a very short list of the most powerful rhetoricians since the American Revolution and his mastery of both the written and spoken word is a marvel to behold. Yes, it is true that MLK’s moral choices left much to be desired. Nonetheless, his vision for a society in which men are evaluated on the basis of their character rather than the color of their skin captures the moral imagination in a way few others ever have.

Reading MLK’s letter in 2021 demonstrates just how relevant MLK’s experience, thought, and dream continue to be.

For one example, consider his continued advocacy for nonviolent protest as an expression of “the more excellent way of love” against the looming alternative model built on the threat of violence from “Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement” which King predicted would leave society in “a frightening racial nightmare.”

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

“People who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible ‘devil'” – 58 years in advance MLK wrote the perfect prophecy of the rise of the national Black Lives Matter movement, The 1689 Project, and the Ibram Kendi / Robin DiAngelo Industrial Racism Set.

King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, right, lead a march on behalf of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 28, 1968. Two sanitation workers in the city had been killed by a malfunctioning garbage truck, and King came to Memphis to support the strike. Sam Melhorn/The Commercial Appeal/AP

Contending with this section for the title of Most Pressingly Relevent is MLK’s expression of disappointment, even as a man who loves the church, with the absence of a moral backbone in the church in the days of the Civil Rights movement.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” 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.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. 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.

King’s description of the church as “merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion” is a fitting epitaph on the prevailing brand of fashionable Christianity peddled today by those who cheered on the government shutting down churches (or jeered those who fought to keep their church open in the face of tyranny), the Moores, Frenches, Stetzers, and Carters who build their brands on leveling the world’s wicked criticisms of the church at the people who pay their salaries, and the ghouls who return segregation to the church in the name of racial harmony and medical expertise.

A simple update of King’s powerful phrase shows how pointed the critique remains – “many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of Macbook screens.”

Among the most disappointing continuities between MLK’s day and ours is found in the lack of real moral integrity, displaced by convenient theological justifications for taking no potentially-costly action against real moral evil.

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.

I have never read any indication that MLK was conversant with Two-Kingdom theology but here he anticipates its application in the age of COVID. “These are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern” could easily be the pull-quote from a piece on The Gospel Coalition, 9 Marks, or Mere Orthodoxy.

The final quote to linger on during MLK Day, 2022 is this. King provides a helpful reminder here – one whose spirit the Christians and their churches of 2022 would be wise to recover.

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.

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