Recently, the 60th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was celebrated. As a Christian who is a faith-rooted advocate and activist, I believe the message of this historic document provides both the context and the clarion call we need today to join pastors and their communities in the streets working for justice. The true Church cannot be silent in the face of injustice, and must work together for shared liberation. We need to join pastors and their communities in the streets working for justice. The true Church cannot be silent in the face of injustice, and must work together for shared liberation. Click To Tweet
In April 1963, while jailed for non-violent civil rights demonstrations, Dr. King wrote a letter of response to 8 white Alabama clergymen who had published their own open letter to the citizens of Birmingham entitled, “Call for Unity.” These clergymen were attempting to redirect the community’s attention away from the growing civil rights demonstrations across Alabama, preferring to move “justice”1 through the courts. They concluded, “when rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets….”2 This letter was submitted by clergy from the Methodist, Episcopal, Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Jewish traditions across Birmingham.
Four days later, Dr. King published an open letter response, making a compelling argument for public action while explaining the importance of peaceful, public protest when injustice is not addressed.
Dr. King and others had been leading a peaceful protest march, pushing for integration, when white segregationists and local safety commissioner Bull O’Connor convinced a state judge to provide a temporary injunction banning all anti-segregationist activity. Separate but equal had been struck down a decade earlier, through Brown vs. Board of Education.3 Yet, places like Birmingham were not complying without resistance. Dr. King and others participated in anti-segregationist activity, pushing for legal integration, and were arrested as a result. Negotiations in Birmingham continued to break down. “Justice too long delayed is justice denied”4 was his rally cry.
Writing in solidarity with those fighting for justice in Birmingham he shared, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”5 Dr. King went on to explain to those who might not understand the purpose of nonviolent, direct action: to incentive negotiations that had either failed or never come about. He then directed the message to two specific groups of people with whom he was frustrated: the white moderate and the white church. The purpose of nonviolent, direct action is to incentive negotiations that have either failed or never come about. (1/2). Click To Tweet Dr. King directed his call for justice on two specific groups of people with whom he was particularly frustrated: the white moderate and the white church. (2/2) Click To Tweet
Pushing back on the white moderate who was more concerned about the appearance of peace rather than “the presence of justice,”6 he called out their ability to see injustice while doing little to work toward its alleviation. “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”7
The second group he singled out was the white church, which Dr. King loved deeply because of his understanding of the interconnectedness of the Body of Christ as ‘one Body, one Spirit, one Hope, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all.’ (See Ephesians 4:4-6) Surely, if one part of the Body suffers, all shared in the suffering? Yet the Black church community not only suffered alone, but watched the white church remain “an arch defender of the status quo.”8 Instead of joining the Black church family in changing unjust power structures, silence was its only consolation, a “vocal sanction of things as they are.” 'Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.' ~Dr. King. Click To Tweet
Injustice and racism are still very present today, and once again the lack of engagement from the white church remains a mystery to so many working for justice. History needs to tell a different story of the white church and that will not happen until its hand is forced. Injustice does not simply happen, and it does not repair itself. The white church must join those, especially those in the Body of Christ, who are working to repair unjust systems.
Dr. King’s message needs to become more than quotations used for sermons, articles, and social media posts on special days of remembrance. Instead, his letter should be considered in its entire context and used as a shining light forward to help us discern the same question he asked back then, namely “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”9
It’s time for the white and majority white church to move beyond proclaiming the good news of the gospel of the kingdom, toward demonstrating it, to move beyond words and speech, toward action and truth.10 Confrontation of power is not new to those who are the children of God. From the early days of the prophets who confronted leaders accused of the very same injustices leaders are today, to Jesus who stood tall against the rulers of his day, calling out their disregard for the marginalized and use of power to perpetuate fear, the Bible clearly shows how important and familiar this practice of faith is. It's time for the white church to move beyond proclaiming the good news of the gospel of the kingdom, toward demonstrating it, to move beyond words and speech, toward action and truth. Click To Tweet
As an advocate and activist today, I see and engage with people who are working to build power in the streets, to confront formal power to make change, whether the white moderate or church are aware of them or not. They are shaping and sharing a much-needed message for change. I believe the church needs to wake up to the “wisdom that is crying in the streets” (Proverbs 1:20-22) and join together for justice.
While those of us doing this type of justice work would love to see a huge group of pastors, leaders and church goers join in, we have come to understand this work of change has always been done by a remnant, as Dr. King did too. At the end of his letter he reminds us of the “church within the church…the true ecclesia and the hope of the world.”11 This legacy of faith-filled change agents who hold onto a vision of what can be and live it by faith are the kinds of Christians that God is not ashamed to call His people. They carry a mantle of courageous hope we need to pick up to confront injustice today.12 This legacy of faith-filled change agents who hold onto a vision of what can be are the kinds of Christians that God proudly calls His people. They carry a mantle of courageous hope we must pick up to confront injustice today. Click To Tweet
Michelle Ferrigno Warren is the President of Virago Strategies a consulting group that equips church and nonprofit leaders for justice work in the public square. She helped found Open Door Ministries, a community development organization in Denver. She is a professor, faith-rooted advocate & activist and the author of Join the Resistance: Step Into the Good Work of Kingdom Justice, (A collaborative title in the Missio Alliance/IVP line, 2022) and The Power of Proximity: Moving Beyond Awareness to Action (IVP, 2017).
1 *Editorial Note: Justice in this instance, being defined as a return to the status quo of white supremacy and continued segregation of society throughout the south. Clearly, this is not justice, either biblically, nor even regarding the definition of the word itself. ~CK
4 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Accessed at https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.
10 See 1 John 3:18.
11 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Accessed at https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.
12 See Hebrews 11:16.