Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is known around the world for the civil rights movement, his writing and powerful speeches. As our country grieves over the most recent black lives lost, one particular letter from Martin Luther King Jr. stands out as a guiding light that we can all use to navigate these uncertain times.
Interestingly enough, MLK wrote this letter while sitting in a Birmingham jail after being arrested for a peaceful protest. Right now, all across America, and in many cities around the world, people of all different races are coming together to do just as Martin Luther King Jr. did. People are marching and having peaceful protests to inspire change in order that we never have to watch an unjust murder like George Floyd’s again.
After reading MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, two questions came to mind that I think we need to answer: “Why and when did King choose to protest?” and “How did he describe moving forward as a nation and more specifically as the church?”
1. Why and when did MLK choose to protest?
To answer these questions, let’s take a look at his letter. An excerpt from MLK’s letter says:
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. I just referred to the creation of tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister.”
“This may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth.”
“Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. So, the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”
In short, as we all know, MLK marched for change—so why did he use peaceful protests to see that change happen? Because it creates the tension necessary that breeds opportunity for negotiation.
As MLK points out in his letter, Socrates is known for highlighting that it is tension that breaks the bondage off our minds allowing us to break free from half-truths. However, this wind of change is rarely met with open arms. One of the most common critiques of MLK was about not waiting for a better time to seek justice—that he protested in the “wrong way.” To this King responds, “For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
As surprising as it may sound, MLK was heavily criticized for his peaceful protests, sit-ins and bus rides. No matter how peaceful, he was still confronted with the complaint of not going about it in the “right way.” As King describes in his letter, protesting involves creating tension around the issue being brought to light so it will no longer be ignored. It’s uncomfortable for the majority. However, as MLK exemplifies, being uncomfortable isn’t a good enough reason to keep from fighting for justice.
2. How did he describe moving forward as a nation and more specifically as the church?
The second point that King makes is the improvements he would like to see in the church. King continues in his letter by saying, “There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were 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 the thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”
“Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But they went on with the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven’ and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.”
“Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter 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 often vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
Renewing our minds daily with God’s love and mighty power is more important than ever in coming together. We still believe in the God who split the sea for the Israelites to walk through, the one who saved Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the fiery furnace, the one who healed every person who came to Him.
If we take an honest look at the church today, could we honestly say we would be able to end the gladiatorial contests at the coliseum? The early church of Acts changed culture and went against the grain to uphold what was morally right. They didn’t just recite popular opinion, they changed the social climate like a thermostat. MLK challenged the churches today to not be more committed to order and keeping the status quo than to justice.