Lessons from a Birmingham Jail


Today we celebrate the life of one who helped turn the moral compass of a nation. Indeed this day is one where we celebrate all who have stood up for justice and equality in our world, whether they were heralded or silenced. Recently I read 'letters from a Birmingham jail' a letter to the church in America at the height of the civil rights movement. In it's pages we find a message as pertinent today as it was in June of 1963.

In light of all the recent racial tension in America, the rise in religious tension surrounding the refugee crisis, and more broadly the injustice that exists in our world, what should our response be as the church? Are our hearts heavy when we see those made in the image of God marginalized, oppressed and justice withheld? Too often our response is moderate, impotent, or frankly we are apathetic and have no response at all. Do the words of Jesus in Matthew 23 reverberate in the emptiness of what should be our humble acts of compassion kindness, mercy and justice?

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”

Proverbs 21:3 says: “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice”. If this is true, righteousness and justice are much more than social issues; they are issues of right worship. For if issues of justice and righteousness do not prick our conscience and result in action, then we have missed the heart of God or worse fashioned an image of a god that gives us permission to be passive.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Dr. King)

King’s was convinced that human evil should not be met with violence but with an active good, that was by nature non-violent. However, his non-violent approach to issues of injustice should not be misinterpreted as abdication, but instead his life, words and action illustrated how a pacifist’s approach can be far from passive. His words offer guidance on how we the church in the 21st century can identify and respond to issues of injustice on a local, domestic and global scale.

King states, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: 1. collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; 2. negotiation; 3. self purification; and 4. direct action.” (Dr. King)

In order to be able to determine if injustice exists we first must have our eyes open. One cannot live blindly in this world thinking that by ignoring injustice, somehow it will disappear or be resolved. This at its core is self-preservation, escapist and is ultimately rooted in narcissism. One must weigh the arguments, identify, wrestle with, and own the pain that injustice would inflict on on our fellow man and how that would grieve the heart of God. One must seek to understand both sides of the injustice; the oppressor and the oppressed. It is from a place of informed understanding that we can move to ‘negotiation’, Dr. Kings second step. If resolve cannot be found through negotiation, one must proceed to step 3 and examine ones own heart and motives, ‘self purification’. From the place of self purification one can then take ‘direct action’ in a way that does not seek to promote self or violence, but is the action of someone who has done due diligence to ensure their heart and action (insomuch as a human can) is aligned with the heart of God for that time, place and people.


One of King’s greatest concerns in his letter was not the response of the extremists to the civil rights movement. He was convinced that those who were ‘moderate’ or indifferent did more to thwart the advance of justice and equality than even the extremist. I fear that too often find myself in this place of indifferent, self-preservation that seeks my own comfort more than God’s heart for justice. King goes on to say that moderates “prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” If God is by nature just and the presence of justice is not cultivated in our lives, then we must ask the hard question: Is the peace that we enjoy the presence of God or a seduction that the enemy has used to lulled us to sleep?

The words of Reverend King cut to the heart in a world of refugee crisis in Syria, the rise of racial tension in America, a turbulent Middle East, a fearful Europe and the widening of the gap between the working and middle class. It’s my prayer that this blog post would stir something first and foremost in my heart as well as yours. I don’t have the answers of what non-violent, direct action looks like, but Reverend King would exhort us today in the same way he did in his letter: “this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.” 

May God give us faith, courage and creativity to respond to the brokenness and injustice in our world as an act of worship. May our worship be a response to His righteousness that rages against injustice and a response to His glory that is diminished when those made in his image are stripped of dignity. May we be spurned to action as our hearts break with His and may our response ever be like that of our Savior, one of compassion and love for the oppressed and the perpetrator.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (Dr. MLK)



The Holy Bible ESV: English Standard Version : Containing the Old and New Testaments. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2007. 

King, Martin Luther, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Birmingham, AL: Self published, 1963 Accessed December 18, 2015. http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf