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Wisdom from a Birmingham Jail

Monday, January 15th, 2007

This year, on the day reserved for the celebration of the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., my thoughts turn to Dr. King’s Birmingham Campaign, a pivotal phase of the Civil Rights Movement, which occurred in the spring of 1963. The campaign was a protest in the belly of the beast, a city which was, according to Dr. King, the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. It began with a series of mass meetings and direct actions and then moved to acts of nonviolent resistance, such as sit-ins, marches on City Hall, and a boycott of downtown merchants.

On April 12, the protests eventually led to King’s arrest. For a week he was kept in solitary confinement. From this point, the situation escalated. As more protestors descended on Birmingham, energized by the imprisonment of their leader, Birmingham firemen and police officers resorted to cruel and inhumane tactics to quell the uprising. Youths were swept into the streets by the force of firehoses, attack dogs were unleashed, and nonviolent protests were answered with clubs.

But King’s tactics were working. On May 10 of that same year, Alabama’s chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference convinced local politicians and business leaders to agree to the desegregation of public accommodations, a committee to ensure nondiscriminatory hiring practices in Birmingham, cooperation in releasing jailed protesters, and public communications between black and white leaders to prevent further demonstrations. Unfortunately, this was met with violent resistance, the culmination of which was the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the death of four little girls. But the next year, President Kennedy signed the Civil Rights Act (1964), the most significant civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

The city of Birmingham would like to forget these things. In many ways it has moved past the segregation and prejudice of its past. But in some a spirit of hatred still lingers. It was planted by tradition and culture and will be difficult to pull out of the hard soil where its roots have been anchored for so long.

Lofty precepts are needed to call men to rise above their preconceptions. In his eloquent way, King argued this point in a letter written in the margins of The Birmingham News from his prison cell during that critical campaign. He wrote,

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful.

Alabama’s laws of segregation would have never been defeated if it weren’t for man’s faith in the absolute laws of God. Strangely enough, many churches were not preaching this law. They were clinging to the commandments of men instead. This was lamented in King’s letter:

There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests.

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. Far 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.

No country can escape unjust laws of its own making until it heeds the Higher Law in God’s Word. Nazism was defeated on this basis as was slavery. Every moral improvement in national legislation must be credited to God.

So why do churches, the very places that ought to be upholding the Eternal Code, exchange that which is holy for that which is popular? We are still seeing social evils promoted in the name of God. In fact, it’s getting worse. You can still visit communities in the South where black Christians and white Christians worship separately. In addition to this, churches not only accept but promote evils such as homosexuality, the destruction of the home, challenges to biblical authority, and irreverence towards God. We hear that there is freedom in Christ and that we are saved by grace, but what about Paul’s command, “Be not conformed to this world?” (Rom. 12:2). Can it be said of us, as Jesus said of his disciples, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world?” (Jn. 17:16).

Martin Luther King, Jr. was great because he recognized a Higher Law with regard to racial equality among men. He saw God’s church as the ekklesia, those called out of the world. He did not live by the mediocrity of the status quo; he challenged men to leave it for the excellence of Christ.

This holiday means many things to many people. For the Lord’s church, it ought to serve as a reminder that human wisdom never improves upon the will of God.