A few weeks ago I read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It’s reputation is deserved. His understanding of justice, and ability to articulate it, is absolutely incredible.
Here are a few of its key portions, summarized with some headings. And then at the end I have a few reflections on whether those who affirm MLK’s opposition to racial injustice, but aren’t just as zealous to care about other issues of injustice right in front of them, really believe his message.
It is not moral or honorable to obey unjust laws and say “but God wants us to trust our leaders.” There is no excuse for following leaders that are leading away from God. Turning a blind eye to injustice, even injustice sanctioned by leaders, is horrible and culpable.
“One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.'”
How do you tell a just law from an unjust law?
“Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
“All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts 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.
“An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself.”
How do you break an unjust law in a just way?
“One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”
Often times, excuses are given for continuing an unjust status quo that may have an appearance of “prudence,” but are in fact very wrong and sinful.
“Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”
What is an example of the effect that unjust laws have, which declare or imply that people certain are inferior?
“[Speaking of his then elementary age daughter] … and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people.”
Sometimes the church greatly, greatly dishonors God by accepting and reinforcing the unjust status quo. This is never right, and gives God a terrible name. The worst offenders are those who claim “moderation,” which in reality is just a nice spiritual-sounding, cowardly way to avoid confronting the real issues. It may sound noble to claim “moderation,” but it is not.
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
“….I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership.”
“I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: ‘Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.’ In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”
Yet we are to love the church in spite of its failings, and the church functioning properly is still the hope of the world.
“Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
“But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”
Social ills and injustice never correct themselves automatically, no matter how much it may seem so in retrospect. They are always only ever removed through the action of real, courageous people who refuse to listen to the spiritually sounding but very wrong-headed “moderates.”
“I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: ‘All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.’ Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
Those who sanction following unjust laws because “we need to obey our leaders” misunderstand the very purpose and meaning of law and leadership.
“I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured….
“I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”
What type of “extremism” is right? Love!
“But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’ And John Bunyan: ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’ And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .’ 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. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
Now, do we still believe this today?
I am asking that question now in relation to issues beyond racism. Very much progress has been made there over the last decades, though there is still more progress to make.
But what we also need to know is that we don’t really believe MLK’s words if we are only able to apply them to the injustice of racism. The person who cannot see the universal truths moral ethic behind MLK’s thought does not understand his words at all. And if you can’t see how these principles apply to other issues in addition to racism as well, then that is, by definition, the proof that you don’t understand them. If you truly believe and understand something, then you can apply it in other contexts as well.
I have seen over the last few years very bad injustice done to workers in the church — in ministries, in churches, and in other organizations — all the while Christian “leaders” have turned a blind eye and deaf ear. Sometimes silly little excuses are given like “we are to trust our leaders.” That is hogwash. We are to trust trustworthy leaders, not untrustworthy leaders. Leaders must earn trust.
I am not going to go into detail on the things I have seen. But I am going to say it is hypocritical and very wrong for people to trumpet the legacy of MLK regarding racism, all the while ignoring the seemingly “less significant” issues of workplace injustice. Of not treating people fairly, and with respect, and as you would want to be treated. Of not treating people as Christ treated us, but rather seeking one’s own personal gain and security at the expense of others.
To fail to uphold those principles and values in the workplace — especially a Christian workplace — is to go against the truth MLK stated so well that an unjust law is any law (or policy or plan of action or way of leading) that degrades the human spirit. Any policy or action in the workplace that treats people merely as tools, or give a false sense of superiority to the leaders, or degrades people rather than enobling their spirits by treating them as valuable people in the image of God, is contrary to all of the principles MLK believed and articulated.
That is not the way of Christ, and we in the church need to wake up to the fact that this is happening in far more places than we may think or realize.
It may seem like a lesser thing than the grand issue of racial injustice that MLK opposed. And it probably is. I’m not trying to make a moral equivalence. But I am saying what MLK said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” To say “oh, this is a different and lesser issue” is therefore to oppose the entire fabric behind MLK’s thought and biblical calls to justice. And, further, isn’t this how all seemingly “small” injustices turns into great injustices? Namely, people say “oh, that’s OK, we can wink at that.” And then it builds, and builds, and over time we finally see that what was behind it was not something small and inconsequential at all, but outright (but veiled) sin and selfishness and evil. The very things that Jesus calls us to remove from ourselves.
But far beyond that, just one more thing: If you don’t think this is a big deal, then consider Mars Hill church. It was one of the largest churches in the nation. Yet Jesus radically brought it to an end in just a few short months because of pride and injustice.