Letter from Jail

By Rev. David Wilson Rogers |  August 20, 2016

            It has been over a half-century since the prophet called forth from a jail cell, holding the church accountable to the Gospel. Responding to a misguided appeal for peace from well-meaning clergy in the Birmingham community, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in his squalid jail cell and echoed the faithful tradition of Paul the Apostle.
            Eight years earlier Rosa Parks set the Civil Rights movement in motion and the US was emerging from a sinful past to embrace a new future of equality and justice.
            Change is difficult and frightening. This is perhaps most felt by those who have the most to lose from the change. Such was the case in 1963 when Dr. King went to Birmingham in support of the peaceful protests calling for justice. In response, eight white religious leaders in Birmingham openly criticized Dr. King for moving too fast with his calls for justice, for creating a culture of anger and hostility, and for violating the laws of the land to promote his agenda. Their veiled call for unity and public repudiation of Dr. King also celebrated a false belief that the unruly behavior of the Civil Rights protesters was handled with calm restraint as Dr. King and his supporters were brutally arrested and jailed.
Dr. King responded to the racist ignorance and outright un-Christian presumptions of the religious leaders by writing from his jail cell. Calling on the full authority of Scripture and standing in the prophetic tradition of the Apostle Paul, Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” quickly became one of the most prophetic epistles of the modern age.
In this historical call for equality and justice, Dr. King held the church accountable to truly be the church. He explicitly outlined the Biblical basis for his faithful sojourn into the hostile wilderness of Jim Crow racism. He also exposed the shallow and racist nature of those who would criticize calls for justice by African Americans living under the oppressive and unequal society dominated by white men who blindly professed a racist version of the Christian faith. He went on to hold accountable the truly violent and blatantly discriminatory behavior of those entrusted to keep the peace and subsequently commended by the white religious leaders as civil and restrained.
Now, 53 years beyond those fateful days in April of 1963, our nation again stands on the precipice of great change and social transformation. Those who perceive they have the most to lose are, quite understandably, are quite resistant to the voices crying for justice and truth. It is easy to hold to comfortable assumptions of what we nostalgically wish to believe were true, while blindly accepting the racist, hate-filled, and discriminatory violence in our very midst—or worse, blaming the violence on those with whom we least identify.
Like the scriptures of the New Testament penned by Paul while in the chains of incarceration for living the faith, Dr. King’s legendary 1963 Letter from the Birmingham Jail reaches beyond its time to inform its future generations. It reminds the Church that we must transcend the media-driven hype of worldly distraction and defend the true Gospel of peace, justice, equality, and truth in our age, for all humanity, and for the future of God’s Creation.
It is time the Church truly be the church. Racism, and its associated hate-filled violence, is rising across America. It is not enough to hold to nostalgic delusions of how we wish the world would be or categorically blame whole populations for the sins of a few. Yet, as long as there is injustice anywhere, we all suffer the stain of injustice everywhere. It is time to truly become the church, the beloved community, and ambassadors of Christ’s love in the world.