Letter From Birmingham Jail

Posted by Scott Foster on

Sunday was the Madison #Beloved Community worship in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was amazing worship in the spirit of Dr. King’s life and times! Several leaders gave reflections on some of Dr. King’s best-known works. I drew “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Just thought I’d share—

So, it’s not so much about how to keep it to 5 minutes—though I will try—it’s about which 5 minutes. There is so much.

It is so dense.

But it is so fresh that it could have been written this morning.

So, to save time, I’m going to dispense with attribution—between Dr. King’s words and mine. You’ll see why.

His words speak truth. Truth in 1963. Truth in 2018.
Sadly—not that much has changed.

You’ll be able to tell the difference, but I’m pretty much stealing it all. Hopefully channeling his spirit. His strength. His resolve. His desperation and most hopefully, Dr. King’s inspiration.  Fair warning—this is a PG-13 message.

April 16, 1963—nearly 55 years ago.

Letter from Birmingham Jail is a hand-written note scribbled literally in the margins of a Birmingham newspaper.

In the dank and nasty jail cell, Dr. King responds to an open letter in the paper published by 8 white-clergymen calling for “unity”—against Dr. King.

Against the actions—the protests, marches, and efforts of the snow-balling Civil Rights Movement.

They call him an “outsider.”

And, I can just hear the bad Kevin Spacey southern accent—“see, you’re not from around here, boy.”

So, while confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely."

I am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here. But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.

Just as the ancient prophets 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, we must constantly respond to the call for aid.

So my friends—How woke are we?
Are we cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states?

We cannot sit idly by and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham, Charleston, Charlottesville, Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, Tulsa. The disproportionate numbers of incarcerated people of color. The Travel Bans. The Dreamers.

The athletes who take a knee for injustice.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

Let me say that again.

Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place. You deplore the #BlackLivesMatter movement. You deplore athletes who take a knee in silent, peaceful protest. You deplore The Women’s March. You deplore the LGBTQI community.

And you deplore non-Christians while you fail to express concern for the conditions that bring about the demonstrations because there are “fine people on both sides.”

You deplore the #MeToo movement—
because you’re culpable.

And, you deplore immigration—here comes the bad word—

You deplore immigration because to you,
those are “shithole” countries anyway.

You fail to grapple with the underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place—but it is even more unfortunate that the country's Make America Great Again white male power structure leaves us with no alternative.

Direct action resistance programs can never be delayed.

You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?"

You would be quite right in calling for negotiation–if you only were calling for negotiation.

Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issues. It seeks so to dramatize the issues that can no longer be ignored.

We are not afraid of the word "tension." Not violent tension, but the constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. The kind of tension in our society that never went away—

The Band-Aid over the dark depths of prejudice and racism has been ripped off and lies again on the surface of our country. Long-time wounds exposed again—

Long-time wounds exposed again to the salvific possibilities of an America that was never truly great without understanding, sisterhood, and brotherhood.

The purpose of direct-action marches, demonstrations, and taking a knee is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

We must continue to call for negotiation. For centuries—our beloved country has bogged down in monologue rather than dialogue.

But we will not see this without pressure from you and me. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure.

Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.

Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

"Wait" has almost always meant "Never." And 60 years ago, Chief Justice Earl Warren said, "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

So, to borrow a phrase and hashtag—#TimesUp.

Civil disobedience. It’s not a new thing. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego disobeyed the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, because a higher moral law was at stake. Christians faced the hungry Roman lions.

The Boston Tea Party was a massive act of civil disobedience.

And remember 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.

Civil disobedience wasn’t a new thing to Dr. King because what’s true then is true now.

What hurts one of us, hurts us all. And justice delayed is justice denied.

So I’m past my 5 minutes.
And time's up.

Time's up for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in April of 1963.
And time's up for you and me in 2018.

If I have said anything that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than sisterhood and brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me, too.

Let us not rest until radiant stars of Beloved Community shine over this great nation in all their scintillating beauty.

Amen, Dr. King.




Grace & Peace,


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