The Anniversary of MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail

We must obey God rather than men.

This much is clear: they took him on Good Friday.

Martin Luther King was ready for escalation, and so were the Birmingham police. Unspoken injustice, like hidden sin, wore a smile – and it needed to be exposed. It needed to be coaxed to “sin boldly.” It needed to be the death that it was.

On Wednesday, the state forbade protests. The man of God was unwavering: ‘‘We cannot in all good conscience obey such an injunction which is an unjust, undemocratic and unconstitutional misuse of the legal process.” So on the day of our Savior’s death, King marched with his brothers into the jaws of the beast. He was arrested. It was Good Friday.

Good.

Good is something unusual. It comes upon us unexpectedly, and eludes when it ought to be here. When you chase it, it is just around the corner. When you give up on it, it invades from the alleys. Dark alleys.Birmingham_1963c_CharlesMoore

The sky continued to darken as Rev. King was shut up in solitary confinement. That same day, the papers published an open letter from the princes of the church – Roman Catholic and Methodist, Episcopalian and Presbyterian. It was an impressive unity, and they called for the public order. Segregation is surely wrong, they said, but there are laws you know. We must take our time, keep the peace, and the time for change will come.

At this point, sitting in his cell, Martin Luther King must have thought back to the apostles. Dragged before the governing council, they were accused by the high priest, who said, “There are laws you know” (Acts 5:28, translation mine). And muttering in embarrassed indignation, the priest added, “and you intend to bring this guilt upon us.”

Guilt! Upon the keepers of the public order! How could the protesters insinuate such a thing?! Surely justice and righteousness are on the side of order!

In the story, the apostle Peter would have none of it: “We must obey God rather than men.”


kingSomething like this must have kept Rev. King’s fire lit in that dark cell: “We must obey God rather than men.” So he began to organize himself, and his emotions, and his mind. He took a little Aquinas, some Augustine, and certainly words of Scripture, and he wrote the Letter from a Birmingham Jail on April 16, 1963.

“Segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful.” Today, we have largely lost the courage to call things sinful. The word is not good and a little too strong, we feel. But the world of today is not, in essence, different than the world of 1963, or of 33 AD. We have choices of obedience between God and men. Martin Luther King is right.

In the gospel, the righteousness of God goes out, and if it does so successfully, some things will look much worse. Exploitation, exclusion, happy acquiescence when we are not the direct bearers of injustice. The Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a testament that the gospel remains hidden so long as the sin remains hidden. But in the Christian tradition, grace goes along with repentance. The joy is that the life of faith is not only a bold facing of grotesque sin – those who trust in Jesus will receive the “Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:32).

On the 53rd anniversary of King’s letter, let us re-imagine what it might look like to be a person full of the Holy Spirit. Let us take courage. And let us be like the apostles. As Dr. King said: “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.”

Bryan Wandel
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.

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