Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Matthew Johnstone
Published 02 October 2013

MLK in jail

Today, for the first time in my life, I sat down and actually read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” You would think that somewhere in the midst of a public school education, a liberal arts degree, and a Master’s of Divinity, at some point, I would have run across the full text of this marvelous letter. But it is only in the run-up to our “Birmingham and the Bible” event on November 2 that I have found the document in front of me, and taken advantage.

I am too moved, and too overwhelmed, to do a complete and in-depth analysis. I am too blown away by the breadth and depth of Dr. King’s thinking and learning, his profound connection between Biblical teaching and present action, to feel like I can make a cogent statement on a first (or even a second!) reading.

This one point, however, grieved and inspired me so much that I could not but share it. The absolute despair of Dr. King’s condemnation of the white church of his time shocks and alarms me - for it is a complacency and fear of rocking the boat that the church shares, even today. Dr. King says,

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

In a time, fifty years later, when the Church continues to neglect the society, and continues to fear being a counter-cultural voice for God’s justice and love, Dr. King’s words still echo down from the ages, reminding us that scholars and activists and scholar-activists can make an enormous difference in changing the minds, hearts, and laws of our land.

The full text of Dr. King’s letter can be found here - I encourage you to take a few minutes today to read one of the most profound and important pieces of correspondence in the history of our nation. I invite you also to join us for our seminar on “Birmingham and the Bible</a>” on November 2 at the Stony Point Center. Click here to register for the event.