Fifty-one years ago this spring, thirty-four-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in a Birmingham jail cell, technically because he had been “parading without a permit.” But that was a sham. Everyone knew it. He was in jail because he had led thousands in a non-violent protest against unjust and dehumanizing laws of racial segregation in Alabama.
Sitting in the cell, Dr. King read an open letter in a newspaper by eight white Christian and Jewish religious leaders titled, “A Call for Unity.” They stated their support of the “Negro cause,” but called for black leaders to exercise patience and utilize the court system to address injustice rather than stir up civil turmoil. But what this letter really called forth was what Bryan Loritts calls the “magnum opus of the civil right’s movement.” Dr. King responded with an open letter of his own: “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It is a piece of eloquent apology and rebuke that shakes one to the roots.
A Must-Read for Many
Dr. King’s letter exposes me, which is exactly why I, and people like me who have never borne the brunt of racial hostility or inherited a 400-year legacy of racial subjugation, must read it. We must. We need an eye-opening glimpse of what racism looks like from the inside, and get a sense for what it feels like and what our ancestors and we have advocated or allowed. Words calling for patience and forbearance and common sense come too easily when we personally feel no urgency.
What I find most disturbing about Dr. King’s letter are statements like this:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” 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.
It’s disturbing to think that people of general good will but a shallow understanding of the plight of the oppressed, who have a lukewarm sympathy but no real vested interest in change, just might be a worse enemy of justice than aggressors. Because they do not advocate for the oppressed nor fight against the oppressor. They smile supportively to the former and practically do nothing to stop the latter.
Deeper Than Good Will
Immediately we feel the broad implication of this — far broader than the long, tragic, entrenched issues of American racial relations. What other injustices are we complicit in by our shallow, toothless good will?
Such good will is indifference in its worst form. It has an appearance of doing justice and loving kindness (Micah 6:8) but denying its power. And I have been guilty of it. I still am guilty of it, not only concerning race but many other things that come to mind. And when it comes to love, truth, and justice, Jesus does not like lukewarmness (Revelation 3:16).
So what do we do about it? A good first step is to deepen our understanding. And a good place to begin is to read this book just released by Moody Publishers: Letters to a Birmingham Jail: A Response to the Words and Dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In it, ten Christian leaders, including John Piper, John Perkins, Crawford Loritts, Jr., and Matt Chandler, reflect a half-century later on the profound effect of Dr. King’s prison cell epistle and his life on our nation, the church, and them personally.
The most beautiful and helpful thing they do is place Jesus and his gospel right into the core of racial issues. No black rage and no white guilt will ever suffice to change the heart of man or atone for centuries of injustice. There is only one place where guilt is atoned for and justice accomplished: the cross of Jesus Christ. For only there, where Jesus is our peace, can the dividing wall of hostility be truly broken down and black and white become one man (Ephesians 2:14–15). That is the miracle of the church. That is the miracle we need more of in the American church. That is the call of the book.
The Non-Passive Pursuit
And passive people of toothless good will will not accomplish this miracle. It will happen when we act the miracle. As John Piper writes in his chapter in the book:
The goal to lead churches, not first the entire secular culture, into the beauty of ethnic and racial diversity and justice and harmony that Christ purchased by his own blood (Revelation 5:9) — this primary goal is urgent. It will not arrive by waiting for it passively. Martin Luther King was right that traditions that are blind to the need for change do not change without effort. Mere waiting does not work. There must be a pursuit.
There must be a pursuit. Love demands that I care about my Christian black brothers and sisters and the ongoing struggles they face, especially those within the church. And care implies pursuit.
If you’re like me, then maybe this book will play a part in a new or renewed pursuit of the God-intoxicated, gospel-empowered, love-driven miracle of racial diversity and harmony in the church of Jesus Christ.
Recent Ask Pastor John episodes on racial harmony: