Why You Should Be Reading (and re-reading) 'A Letter From Birmingham Jail'

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. - Martin Luther King Jr., A Letter from Birmingham Jail

It has been said before that Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the 'Founding Fathers' of our country. That may sound odd to those who assume that term must be constrained to a timeline but if you are speaking in terms of effect and definition, this is absolutely true! We are, to be sure, still within a living generation of the man and within living memory of the movement that he helped canalize into the spheres of social reality. Perhaps more than any other single individual since Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. shaped the racial dynamics and realities that exist today. And there is yet to be anyone in our contemporary place in history that has been able to rise to Martin's own level.

If one takes the time to read the letter, one realizes a few things right off the bat about the letter: first, that this is a philosophical manifesto. MLK Jr., like Saint Paul in his Pauline epistles, is writing a letter with a cause, with an argument, and a construct. You can disagree with Martin in one or many aspects of this but you must take him seriously in doing so. Second, one realizes that like many of the writings that are passed down and treasured as documents of human identity and purpose, this letter stands on its own two feet. It cannot be minimized by its historical context. It stands apart from the author in many ways such that if the name Martin Luther King Jr. became lost to the dust of history, the letter would hardly lose an ounce of power and relevance. And third, one realizes that really the only thing that cannot be extrapolated from his situation into ours is legal segregation. Everything else stands. Everything. This document is as relevant now as it was then, despite the decades of separation between it and us.

That is, of course, what makes his writings, speeches, and testimonies so powerful: they are prophetic in nature. Like Bonhoeffer, another martyr who died for his voice and opposition to oppression, there is something in MLK that lacked temporality. They lived in their situation, they dealt with their situation, they spoke into their situation, but they also spoke into ours and, in all likelihood, to all times and places in history. With his plea for non-violence, the conviction that racial equality is the inevitable goal for a country founded on the goal of liberty (if that goal can be maintained), his agreement with Paul Tillich that sin should best be described as 'separation,' his conviction that justice and love require extremism, and his argument (along with Augustine) that laws are only just if they conform to the divine law, MLK's letter should continue to be the prophetic manifesto for those who seek racial justice (no matter the skin color) and equality. It will not due to discount it as only relevant to a situational past any more than it will due to discount the Pauline epistles as only relevant to their context. They serve as the criteria by which the community should define itself and hold itself accountable or it should be built on for something better (Note: I am reminded of what Dallas Willard said when he said (something to the effect of) 'If you can find me someone that does it better than Jesus, I'll follow them...as for now, I don't see anyone doing it better. In my opinion, the same holds true for revolutionary figures like MLK Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Ghandi).

Let me push a bit further with this. One would not want to attend a church where it was clear that the pastor only had read through The Gospels once but continued to preach about Christianity. One would not want to vote anybody into political office (although it happens, obviously) if they had never read and did not continue to re-read throughout their life and career The Constitution. So it is that if we aspire for drastic change, we must return to the foundational and formative documents that have compelled the change forward. This does not stop at MLK's letter anymore than a preacher should stop after The Gospels or a politician should stop at The Constitution. But they must be at the very foundation of everything else and we should return to them as social devotionals.

I encourage you to read through this sometime this week. Listen to it. Wrestle with it. Let it wrestle with you. 

 


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