Rereading Letter to Birmingham Jail on MLK Day

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.

Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” 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. 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 even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

Paradoxically, the church of today is actually so much more powerful in every outward metric than the church of the first century. There are more of us, we have more money, we have representatives in local, state, and national government. But God’s words in 2 Corinthians 12 –“My power is made perfect in weakness.” — bring tears to my eyes because their converse is also true, and bitterly so.

We have traded the power of God’s authority for the power of numbers and the power of a sizable minority cushioned by a pluralistic society. We are insulated by money, possessions, social power, comfort, and even capable of being deceived into thinking that we’re “persecuted” in the midst of that society just because those we once oppressed have finally gained the numbers to stand up against us. Instead of fighting real oppression, we waste our time and energy fighting the straw man of “threats to religious liberty.”

It is terrifying how relevant this fifty-year-old letter is to 2016. But I guess that’s only surprising with the mindset that Dr. King describes elsewhere in the Letter:

Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.

Time as a force of social stagnation feels stronger than ever. Recently I read that 2/3 of Americans don’t have a college degree, but it occurred to me that nearly all of the media I consume is produced by those who do. So without really going out of my way, it’s not that easy to encounter the stories of those whose background is not like my own.


Rereading this letter reminded me not to be content with that status quo, but to launch out of my comfort zone as a listener and active solicitor of stories. And, hopefully armed with that knowledge, I can make good use of this time to do right.


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