I guess the most well known of Dr King’s teachings come from three places, the I have a dream speech, the Mountain Top message and the Letter from Birmingham Jail. It would be incomplete to have this series without some of those great inspiring words, so today’s quotation comes from part of the Letter from Birmingham Jail.
On April 12th 1963 – Good Friday that year - King and some colleagues were arrested for staging protest marches in Birmingham, Alabama.
That same morning, several white ministers had written an open letter to King that had been printed in the local newspaper, calling on him to end the protests, and labelling him an anarchist, an extremist and a lawbreaker.
King's reply, a few days later on the 16th April 1963, from his cell in Birmingham Jail, was to pen the now-famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.
It is a calm and measured response, that speaks highly of King’s humility, dignity and love. Instead of unleashing a torrent of justified rage and anger at the lack of support from the white churches, he issues a plea for understanding, fellowship and support.
In the middle of the letter he writes,
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, grandson, and 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 fear of being nonconformists.
There was a time when the church was very powerful – in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being 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. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians of being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven”, called to obey God rather than man. Small in number they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary Church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender 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 even vocal – sanction of things as they are.