Martin Luther King Day

MLKIn April of 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and jailed in Birmingham, Alabama while participating in a peaceful march in protest of that city’s segregationist laws. While confined in the Birmingham city jail, he learned of criticism against his protests by a group of Alabama clergymen. To explain himself and his philosophy of non-violent “direct action,” King secretly penned a response, at first in the margins of a copy of the daily newspaper, then on pieces of paper smuggled into the cell by another inmate.

You can read the entire letter here. In honor of Rev. King’s life, and in recognition of the Christian faith that was the foundation of his beliefs and actions, I’m excerpting some of his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” here.

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. … I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? … A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. … All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. … Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.

I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. …

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.”

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you… Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” … Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” … And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” … So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

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. … 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. … 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.

For more information, visit The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is copyrighted by The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Update: Pastor and student of history Mark Daniels has written a fine post honoring King and lamenting the way our US educational system has failed to teach students about Dr. King’s important place in history. Read it all here and add Better Living to your daily reading.

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  1. You’re the first person (besides me) I’ve seen blog this letter. Last year I discovered it, and then I wondered why I had never seen it before then! It’s amazing. “We” have so reduced King to his “I have a dream” speech, when there is so much more to be known! I’ll have to check out your link by Daniels, it looks like it could speak to some questions I have.

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