Honoring “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”


By Mark Liederbach with Tom Iversen

April 16th marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”

Many (including us) rank his letter as one of greatest pieces of American literature ever written.  It is at once a powerful and elegant exposition of, and argument for, natural law as well as a sturdy call to repentance and an outright challenge for those who claim to be aligned with the Gospel of Jesus Christ to stand up and be counted in the fight for truth and justice.  Fifty years later it is still poignantly relevant to a culture experiencing a full assault on notions of moral truth, ethical standards, religious conscience and rightly ordered freedom.

Sadly, too many evangelicals (both white and black) are unfamiliar with the masterpiece that is MLK Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” But consider some of the astounding statements found within:

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 archsupporter 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 silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.

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 a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.

Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

In considering the philosophical and biblical sturdiness as well as the theological and moral challenge present in the Letter, we can’t help but be drawn to the words and thoughts of the Apostle Paul in Acts 17 that have a similar shaping influence on questions of justice, truth and morality.  There, in Athens, on Mars Hill, while engaging the Greek philosophers and bringing the truth of the Gospel into the marketplace of ideas, Paul made this remarkable statement:

and God made from one blood every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being… (Acts 17:26-28. Italics added for emphasis). 

One Blood

In Him we live and move and have our being.

Ideas to rock the status quo and change a world.

One blood means there is only one race: the human one.  Thus, racism is fundamentally stupid and unbiblical.

In Him we live and move and have our being means all humans will only find hope fulfilled and a satisfied soul as each person rightly aligns him or herself to the God who created all things for His own glory.  And that can only happen through faith in Jesus Christ.

One important difference between Dr. King’s Letter and the Apostle Paul’s speech on Mars Hill relates to the audience to whom each was directed.  It is interesting to note that Dr. King made his argument not so much to unbelievers or those who directly persecuted him, but to his brothers and sisters in Christ.  His target audience was those tepid, timid “white churchmen [who] stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” and justify their inaction by saying “those are social issues with which the Gospel has no real concern.”

Perhaps the reason the words of MLK Jr. and Paul are so powerful and transcend notions of race or ethnicity is not because of the elegance of the writing or the catchiness of certain phrases, but rather (and far more importantly), because truth always transcends categories of race and ethnicity.  And speaking truth in the face of injustice or ideas that stand in opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is one of the key ways true Christ followers must “take captive” and “destroy” ideas and speculations that stand against the things of God in their own heats and in the culture at large.

It is for this reason that at the 50 year anniversary of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”  we are especially grateful to God for Dr. King and his calling all of us to be stand and fight not just for ending the moral stupidity of racism, but even more so, to be the kind of people who do not acquiesce to the ideas of culture but rather shape it for the Glory of God.

Fifty years ago Martin Luther King Jr. stood like a man and called all of us to be better.  Fifty years later he is still calling us up to be men with him.

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is timeless work of ethics, philosophy, theology, amazing writing … AND a good reminder of two astounding truths: 1) The Gospel is thicker than blood (and therefore skin color) and; 2) our lives and our world can only be transformed into wholeness  through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

(Image credit)


Mark Liederbach is Professor of Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as Vice President for Student Services and Dean of Students, and is a Research Fellow for the L.Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture. Tom Iversen serves as an elder at North Wake Church in Wake Forest, NC.online games

Some Thoughts on Race and the Presidency

Yesterday America celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is hard to believe that, if Dr. King was still alive today, he would turn 80 this year. That’s a few years younger than all three of my living grandparents. As someone who was born about a decade after Dr. King’s assassination, I cannot imagine a world where he lives past 39 years old–he was such a young man in 1968. History will always remember him as a young man.

Martin Luther King Jr. was, above all, a Baptist preacher. He served local Baptist churches in Alabama and Georgia. Like many leaders in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. King saw his social activism as an extension of his Christian faith. He believed racism, and all forms of social oppression, were fundamentally sin issues. Society needed to change, but Dr. King and many others knew that societal change would only come as individual hearts and minds were changed. And this was especially true of Christian hearts and minds; too many Christian people were not walking in a manner worthy of the gospel when it came to racial justice in American culture, especially in the South. (See Dr. King’s scathing critique of racially moderate clergy in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which can be read here.)

We should stop and consider how America has changed in the course of a generation. When Dr. King was assassinated, there were some places where it was still difficult for African Americans to vote. Many places in the South were still segregated (my parents were in high school–in the early-1970s–before they had black classmates in South Georgia). There were virtually no African Americans (or other “non-whites,” besides a few Asian-Americans) serving in prominent elected or appointed positions in our national government. And now here we are, in January 2009, prepared to inaugurate the first African American President of the United States in a little less than one hour. Society has changed.

All Christians should be thankful that Barack Obama will soon be our President, even those who did not vote for him. Though racism will be with us until that day when all things are made new in Christ, the election of a black man as our Commander and Chief signals a significant advance in our nation’s history. I believe without reservation that this is evidence of God’s grace. I know that many of my fellow conservative evangelicals will disagree. They will bemoan Obama’s election because of his views of abortion, homosexuality, and other “social issues.” They will argue that his election is evidence of God’s judgment, not his grace. And to be clear, I strongly disagree with our new President’s views on these matters.

But as a Christian and a historian, I think it is at least possible that today is evidence of both grace and judgment. Why should this be surprising? We believe in the God of common grace, who brings rain to both the righteous and the wicked, who prevents each of us from being as sinful as we are capable, who allows a fallen world to still show great evidence of beauty, truth, and order, however imperfectly. We also believe in the God who exercises righteous wrath against wickedness, whether it be the murder of the unborn, perverse forms of human sexuality, the oppression of a people based upon the color of their skin, or the exploitation of orphans and widows.

History is complicated and messy, a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Isn’t it possible that God is blessing us in some ways, even as we face judgment in other ways? If you think about it, this is the individual experience of every person, both Christian and non-Christian. This is the experience of every family. Every church. Every nation. Life will be complicated until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he reigns forever and ever.

So I rejoice–really, sincerely, wholeheartedly, and Christianly–at the election of Barack Obama. It represents so much that is good. So much that is so long overdue. So much that, in God’s common grace, pictures the barrier-smashing power of the gospel. The strong disagreements I have with Mr. Obama on any number of issues can wait for tomorrow. Today is a day of celebration, for every American, and for every Christian. Hail to the Chief.angry racers online