Honoring MLK: Six takeaways from reading Dr. King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’
Today we observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and I wanted to re-print what I discovered after reading Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I originally wrote this for last year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but this written message is worth studying again.
You can find a transcript of the letter here. Do yourself a favor and take some time today to read King’s entire letter. See how his message is still relevant today.
Here are six aspects to consider from the letter. Please know there is much more to ponder.
1. The Gospel is mentioned four times.
King compares his mission to Paul’s as he wrote, “…and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city… I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.”
He mentions Paul and the Gospel again when defending himself as an extremist, “Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? – ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’”
The fourth time was near the conclusion when he declares the South will recognize its real heroes, who King describes in a list of heroic pioneers, including “young ministers of the gospel.”
2. Religious liberty is emphasized
When writing on the topic of civil disobedience and using Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as Biblical examples, King describes living in a Communist country “where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed.” He said he would “openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws.”
3. King’s disappointment with the “white moderate”
“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.”
This reminds me of Rev. 3:16 that mentions Jesus writing to lukewarm Christians. King considers white moderates to be of similar status, as the “great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom” and not the “Ku Klux Klanner.”
4. Thoughts on the “contemporary church”
King points out a time when The Church was “very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed.”
I love the analogy he uses of the Church needing to be a “thermostat that transformed the mores of society” and “not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion.”
He said, “Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound… 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 missions and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.”
5. Do-nothingism vs. Hatred and Despair
King shares some interesting thoughts about two opposing forces in the “Negro community.” One force, he writes, demonstrates complacency of people who “have been so completely drained of self-respect… have adjusted to segregation… become insensitive to the problems of the masses.”
The other force represents “bitterness and hatred and comes perilously close to advocating violence.” King names a specific group called “Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement.” He writes that this group is “made up of people who have … absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incurable devil.”
King stresses the importance of nonviolent demonstrations because if the opposite occurs “millions of Negroes, out of frustration and despair, will seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies, a development that will lead inevitably to a frightening racial nightmare.”
6. Humor expressed in his conclusion
The next-to-last paragraph has some intriguing language. Keep in mind, King is writing this lengthy letter from a jail cell. I appreciate his humility and the details he shares of his conditions.
“Never before have I written a letter this long – or should I say a book? I’m afraid that it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but 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?”
I am hopeful Dr. King did more praying than thinking strange thoughts.