I have a confession to make. Up until yesterday, I had never read Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter From a Birmingham Jail in its entirety in one sitting. I had read bits and pieces for various classes over the years, but never had I read it from start to finish.
If you haven't read the letter, do it now, then come back here and finish reading this.
Reading King's letter from beginning to end gives you a complete picture of the conditions in which it was written. You sense King's passion and the immediacy of the issue about which he writes. You sense the utter failure of religious leaders to stand on the side of right. You sense the need for nonviolent movements today.
As I read it, I got the feeling that this was one of those great documents that would stand the test of time. No matter what else happens in the course of human history, I believe that schoolchildren and grownups will be reading this letter forever. They should. I even think the canon needs to be reopened and this letter needs to be added.
I think God continues to create and continues to reveal. I believe in a God who is not done speaking. And I believe God was speaking through this missionary for justice just as God spoke through folks like Paul, Peter and Stephen at their trials and in their jail cells.
So I say, "Add it."
Our children need to hear about King's takes on justice, peace, righteousness and morality as much as they need to hear about Noah's boat, Jesus' healings, and Paul's travels. Kids and adults need to be reminded that laws must change to reflect the justice God desires. And they must know that they have a moral and religious obligation to fight injustice where they see it, even at the expense of their social status, their bank accounts, or their bodies.
I resonate most deeply with King when he writes:
I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of Rio shall lengthen.
As one who is called to educate the church on how they can best impact the world for good, I feel King's anguish as he writes this paragraph. I, too, have become disappointed with the church, and I, too, do not criticize it as an obtuse outsider, intolerant of all things religious. I critique as one who was raised in the church's care and who believes the church can have a role in forming society into a peaceful, more equitable place for all.
I also feel that if the church stands on the sidelines, it will miss its chance to be a positive force upon the earth. King continues:
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. [F]ar 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.
God forbid that the church defend the status quo. The church was built to be a refuge for the hurting, the dying, the sick, the lame, the unequal, the not-good-enoughs, the outcasts, the almosts, the trying, the feeble, the lonely, the lost, the outsider, the shamed, the ignorant, the blind, the bereaving, the needy, the hungry and the imperfect. Instead, the church has cast these labels on whomever they want, building walls to keep itself safe, fat, and happy.
And the church still remains ignorant to the good it could be doing if it would look outside itself. I agree with King that the impact of a weak church could be disastrous for its own future:
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it [will] lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Closing its eyes and ears to Darfur, the homeless, the poor, the immigrant, and the non-white, the church is dangerously close to standing for nothing. In backing policies that only ultimately lead to its own protection, the church is seen as hypocritical at best and meaningless at worst.
I've cut and pasted King's manuscript into the back of my Bible. I encourage you to do the same.