Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the US, which prompted me to reflect on his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written in 1963. It’s not just beautifully written—by turns eloquent and needle-sharp—but speaks to us about current issues and challenges, and provides an inspiring example of the kind of leadership we need today. In this post, I want to briefly highlight some of the themes that stand out to me. But first, some background.
The Reverend Dr King was in Birmingham, Alabama, to lead protests when he was arrested for a breach of the law against mass public demonstrations. King, a Baptist minister, was also the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and had been nationally recognised as a civil rights leader since becoming the leader of the bus boycott movement initiated by Rosa Parks in 1955. While he was in jail, eight white ministers wrote a public letter critiquing his actions; his Letter was written in reply.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” King starts by responding to critiques of his presence in Birmingham. He is not, he says, an “outsider” as his critics suggest; he is entitled to be present “because injustice is here.” Underlying this point is a connected vision of humanity, one of solidarity and mutual responsibility—one that stands in stark contrast to the individualism that characterises modern advocates of policies like euthanasia.
“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” King’s critics are, he says, anxious because of his “willingness to break laws.” He responds by saying that, “there are two types of laws: just and unjust.” A just law is one “that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” Citing St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine, he argues that just laws should be obeyed, while unjust laws must be disobeyed. It’s a stark contrast to the dominant assumption of our time that there is no objective standard, no external moral authority, that our laws should be judged against.
“One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” King advocates for “nonviolent direct action” to “arouse the conscience of the community,” for which he and his followers prepared with “a process of self purification,” asking themselves questions like, “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating? Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” It’s a noble and sacrificial response to injustice, one that stands far above the scenes of violence, disorder, and ugly demands that characterised the recent riot at the US Capitol.
King confronts “the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows,” challenging the church to take its proper place in confronting injustice. He is open about his great disappointment with “the white church and its leadership,” which he says has “been more cautious than courageous.” Prophetically, he says, if the church “does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church” and cast off “the paralyzing chains of conformity”, “it will lose its authenticity.” Christians in our time and place who are tempted to settle for a comfortable faith rather than, say, continuing to care about unpopular and sensitive issues like abortion might like to consider this passage.
King’s “gospel of freedom” is irreducibly Christian. His vision of justice, humanity, and civil rights is not just informed by his Christian faith, it is entirely dependent on that faith. It’s an illustration of the point made by Tom Holland in Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, that many of the ideas we hold to be true and self-evident in modern democracies—like the dignity of every human person—owe everything to their Christian origins and make little sense when people try to separate the two.
Despite the challenges of racism and injustice, the golden thread running through King’s letter is an inspiring vision of unity. Even when he is directly and uncompromisingly critical of “the white church,” “white moderates,” and their complicity in evil, he goes on, “I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church … and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.” He ends with this:
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
In this fractured, polarised, and partisan age, we need leaders who can proclaim such as vision as this, who can call us to be better people, and a better society, and to rise above our faults and our challenges.