The Naughty Baptist

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

This weekend I read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." Very powerful.  I had not read it, in its entirety, in quite some time.

Probably because of some of my musings lately, several quotes jumped out at me.

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.

King wrote of how he had been very disappointed in white moderates. He had thought they would step up in large numbers to help advance the cause of civil rights. He was very mistaken in this. For numerous reasons, they worked mainly for the status quo.

I think this holds true today. Many people see issues and think, "Wow, that really is bad" but do not ever speak up, much less act to change something. This is not a virtue, nor is it neutral. "So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin" (James 4:17, ESV).

After writing a bit of the history of the Church as a force for change in the world, he states:

Things are different now. The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter 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 vocal sanction of things as they are.

This is indeed often the case. It's sad and -- let's be honest -- pathetic to see the Church of Christ doing nothing to correct injustice. He continues:

But the judgement of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.

This was written in 1963, and seems rather prophetic. I do not think the church is totally irrelevant. But it is undeniable that it is no longer as influential as it once was. In some places globally it has ceased to have much impact at all. And I hear the same disgust from young people.

Despite these, and similar passages, King's writing is very winsome. As an example, when he apologizes for writing so much, he asks, "what else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?" Writing to those who he had hoped would support him, but did not, he is still very gracious to them. Firm, clear is his position, but still gracious.

His tone, reasoning, and arguments for "direct action" (civil disobedience) are very powerful. If you haven't read this recently, or ever, I recommend you take some time to do so. Agree with him or not, it's a wonderful look into the mind of someone who God used to alter the course of American history.