It was Good Friday, April 12, 1963, that an open letter, “A Call for Unity,” written by seven white Christian and Jewish leaders in Alabama, appeared in The Birmingham News. It was during the days of the Civil Rights Movement, and these seven men shared the view that the demonstrations occurring in Birmingham were creating unnecessary havoc and discord. They hoped that their letter would dissuade Birmingham’s African-American community from going forward with an illegal march on Birmingham’s City Hall, planned for the same day as the letter’s publishing, in protest of the city’s segregation laws. The clergymen also hoped that the letter would move city officials to work toward racial progress through peaceful negotiations and nonviolent resolutions. But despite their hopes, the march went on, with arrests and media attention coming along with it.
On Easter Sunday, April 14, Southern Christian Leadership Conference Executive Director Wyatt Walker went to the Birmingham Jail to give a copy of the white ministers’ letter to an “outsider” arrested two days earlier. His name — Martin Luther King, Jr.
King read the letter, simultaneously disappointed and inflamed: disappointed in the eight ministers’ lack of intensified involvement in working for civil rights for Birmingham’s African-American citizens; inflamed because they directly attacked him, his theology, and work. King felt compelled to respond. The response that evolved, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” remains to this day one of the most compelling pieces of civil rights literature to survive the generations.
In the Book of Isaiah, the Lord says,
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isa. 55:10-11)
In this is the Lord’s promise, that his word will bring to the people the fullness of eternal life. God’s word never fails; it stands true forever. Not only is God’s word a description of a glorious future, it is the appointed means by which that future is created.
That glorious future spoken of in Isaiah has become more certain through Jesus Christ, God’s Word made flesh. “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us (2 Cor. 5:20). In whatever way we serve, we are to do so, while loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4:13).
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 coworkers 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. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to life our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). For our glorious future to come, we, God’s people, must actively seek it. It will come by us living as if God’s kingdom is already fully here. Time, by itself, is not enough. To proclaim Jesus as Savior, yet consciously not live out our call as his disciples only delays the fullness of that glorious future in coming. And “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
For King, whom Americans today honor, Jesus Christ was the Savior who proclaimed the acceptable year of God’s favor for all people to be now. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). For King, this was old-school, common-sense Christianity. Yet it was also new, and his imagination, inspired by the witness of the prophets, pictured a world truly reflective of God’s desires, vastly different from his own. He called for the changing of attitudes now, not when the time felt right. From King, God’s word certainly went out and did not return empty. Like the prophets of old, God used the writings and voice of King to push us to be better than what we previously were.
But also like the old prophets, King’s voice still cries out to us, for his dream, both for his country and the Church he served, is still yet to be realized. “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love. … Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord” (2 Tim. 1:7-8).
Let us all then, together, “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2).
 Footnote for Isaiah 55:10-11, ESV Study Bible (Crossway, 2008), p. 1342.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” originally published on April 16, 1963.
 Ibid. King attributes this quote to a “distinguished jurist of yesterday.”
Thanks for writing this, Brandt. Do you have any sense of where, for King, the line was between Christianity and citizenship? His message was an intensely Christian one – Christ furnished the message (although Gandhi furnished the means!) – but, at the same time, King was also intensely American, drawing upon imagery rooted in America’s founding documents. So, I wonder: is there a line between Christianity and citizenship in King, or is it always a both/and, such that King’s America is necessarily a Christian America? I have often mused that if King were alive today, he would be castigated by… Read more »
Ben, I do think, for King, there was a line between Christianity and citizenship. As an American citizen, he felt a duty to advance the principle of equal protection for all people under the law, regardless of their religious preference. As a Christian, it was his faith–particularly the Scriptural passages, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27) and “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male… Read more »