Where does one begin to reflect on the continued significance of the life and legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.? It is no easy task precisely because there is so much to consider and so little time and space in which to consider it. Following the lead of John Dear, SJ, last week, I decided to spend some time with one of King’s now-classic texts, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Faced with his ministerial colleagues’ criticism for his presence and work in Birmingham (King was visiting from Atlanta), the great Civil Rights leader felt it necessary to address these statements, some of which had described King’s actions as “unwise and untimely.” What follows, at first, is a rather banal explanation for his presence in Birmingham, citing his professional responsibilities. But then there is what becomes the opening of the real content of the letter.
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Constructed in the biblical-prophetic imagination, King understands that his purpose — whether his colleagues and others like it or not — is to speak truth to power, to work with God for the sake of the oppressed and proclaim the Good News (Gospel) of Salvation, which the powerful, wealthy and privileged do not want to hear.
The most powerful line in the letter comes rather early on and it remains one of those inspirational specters, always haunting me, in my own life: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The Letter reads as the message of someone standing — in prison, albeit — with the conviction of one moved by the Spirit of God for the work of justice. His response to his critics is that they idly stand by offering nothing more than the safest and most superficial sort of social and political critique. We are called to something greater, God’s justice demands our action and our risking marginalization and misunderstanding.
The Place of Civil Disobedience
Responding to the question of his choice of civil disobedience, King explains that there are just and unjust laws. And following unjust laws, those that stand in contrast to the divine law of God, is not required of anyone — a truth demonstrated throughout history.
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.
Prophetic Call to ‘White Moderates’
I often find, no matter how many times I read the text, that the most striking portion of the Letter is addressed to what King calls the “white moderate.” He insists that greatest stumbling block for Civil Rights isn’t the KKK or other explicitly racist or hate-driven groups, their minds will never be changed, but it is those so-called moderate, tolerant or other-mild-titled groups that sympathize with the movement for justice, but do nothing about it themselves. Those who commit the sin of omission by their words and deeds (really, the lackthereof).
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 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.
So to you, today’s “white moderates,” whether you are caucasian or belong to some other demographic population, the question is posed: For what will you stand?
Those who embody the “safe way” or the “middle way” or the “moderate way,” as I fear I may have too often done or continue to do in my own life, we must allow that tension that King explains already exists to rise to the surface and be faced directly.
Injustice remains in our world and, to a great degree, in our nation. The rights of all are not secured and most people, even those who have the most to lose, idly stand by in silence. Today’s civil rights issues continue to be about racial and ethnic injustice, but it also extends to include the rights of all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender, the right to healthcare and to life, the right for equitable distribution of wealth and a decent wage.
For what will we stand?