Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
On King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
By Stephanie Summers
January 19, 2015
While many Americans are familiar with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech from the March on Washington, fewer are familiar with his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” – and even fewer with the context in which it was written.
On April 3, 1963, a non-violent campaign of coordinated marches and sit-ins against legal racial segregation in Birmingham, AL began. Seven days later, a circuit judge issued a blanket injunction at the request of the city against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing, and picketing.” Leaders of what had come to be known as the Birmingham Campaign said they would disobey the ruling, based on the First Amendment, which articulates “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Two days later, on Good Friday, King was arrested for disobeying the injunction and was taken to the Birmingham City Jail.
While in jail, King received a smuggled newspaper which contained “A Call for Unity” – a statement by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and the methods of the movement like boycotts and non-violent demonstrations. King’s response to the clergy was published in several national magazines and newspapers and distributed widely. I commend it to you today – it will take less than half an hour to read it. In it, King expresses grave concern with the unbiblical attitudes of three different groups who possess distinct God-given roles and responsibilities. He addresses those in governmental authority, those in church leadership, and citizens, and he highlights the Christian imperative of working for justice in the political realm. His letter outlines three sets of roles and responsibilities that I believe are essential for understanding the task of our Christian political engagement today.
King calls out the legislative and judicial environment of his day, which had not conformed to the biblical norm of justice but had institutionalized segregation, the oppression of a specific people group, in violation of clear biblical teaching about the equality of all persons. While he makes an appeal to the First Amendment, King recognizes that those in ruling authority are the subjects of God, who has given them the task of ensuring public justice for all persons.
King advocates that Christians should promote government as an institution responsible for creating just laws, and that as Christians under authority, we are morally responsible for obedience to these just laws. In other words, King is advocating for change, but not for changes to the structure of governmental authority. He is making an appeal to the structure we see embodied in Psalm 72, and he is calling his brothers to hold those in authority accountable to execute government’s true task -- conformity to the norm of justice.
King also calls out the institutional church where many of God's people counseled the demonstrators to cease their boycotts and sit-ins in the name of Christian unity. King responds directly to the white clergy who encouraged King and others to preach the Gospel rather than "to sow confusion by getting involved in social problems." King reprimands the clergy because they do not see their faith as connected to equipping believers for the task of political engagement, and that efforts to change government towards the norm of justice are not the concern of people of faith. As is true in our day, counseling Christian retreat from political engagement is an abdication of the responsibility of the church to equip believers to call government to fulfill its high calling to uphold justice for all people and institutions.
King writes from a position that he repeatedly speaks of as “love” for the church: “In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love!” He writes to call churches back to their God-given task of properly ministering the word of God, including instruction about the roles and responsibilities of government and citizens in ensuring a just political community.
Lastly, King addresses his concern towards citizens – those not inspired by God's word to take up their civic responsibilities and failing to step into the public square to ensure a more just political community for their neighbors. King specifically names the apathy of citizens who did not stand up to the misuse of government power for keeping order in an unjust manner. He recognizes society as differentiated; it is not the work of the institutional church to embody civic responsibility, but rather it is the work of voluntary associations of citizens, catalyzed by the word of God administered by the church, to take up their civic responsibilities.
Much of the vision, motivation, endurance and strategy for the movement dedicated to overcoming legalized racial discrimination was rooted in voluntary associations of citizens that were built on the teaching of the church, including The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As we address the political injustices of our day, we must build voluntary associations that take seriously God’s word in its teaching on justice and the roles and responsibilities of differentiated institutions. We who enjoy freedom of speech and association must engage within the context of institutions organized for such purposes, of which the Center for Public Justice is one.
- Stephanie Summers is Chief Executive Officer at the Center for Public Justice
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”