Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter to Pastors

55 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter to fellow pastors from a jail cell in Birmingham, where he sat because of a non-violence “sit-in” protest. He wrote the letter mostly on pieces of toilet paper and scraps of newspaper.

Here are some excerpts of that message which every Christian would do well to read today.

“Though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

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.

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 for 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 archdefender 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.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.”

For the full text of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” click here.

Aren’t Justice and Mercy Incompatible by Definition?

web-justice-mercy-lisa-aiken-shutterstock_197111327

Recently at White Fields we have been studying through the Book of Jonah. Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria – a violent and imperialistic nation which posed a clear and present danger to the very existence of Israel. And Jonah was called to take them a message which carried with it the promise of mercy if they would repent of their sins and turn to the Lord.

Archaeologists and historians who have studied the Assyrian Empire report things such as human sacrifice, furniture upholstered with human skin, pyramids of human skulls, how they would put hooks in the faces of captives and leading them around by chains…

So it is not surprising that one of Jonah’s hesitations with going to Nineveh was that he didn’t think it would be fair for God to show mercy to people who did such terrible things. Jonah struggled with the question of how God could still be just if he were to forgive these sins and show them mercy.

This is a question many people struggle with:  If you forgive someone, then what about justice?  Can anyone just do anything they want and then say sorry, and suddenly it’s okay, and there are no repercussions? Where’s the justice in that?

For this reason, some people are hesitant to forgive those who have hurt them: because it kind of feels like in that case, they are getting away with it, or you are saying that it wasn’t a big deal — even though it was. (More on this topic here: Does Forgiving Mean Forgetting?)

One of the great promises of the Bible is that God is just, and even if we don’t see it in our lifetime, there will be justice.  Nothing is hidden from the eyes of God, and He will deal justly with every hurtful action and every wrongdoing. This gives us great comfort in the face of injustice, corruption and unfair and unethical behavior that we see or which touches our lives.

In the Psalms, the Psalmist often bemoans the injustice that he sees in the world: that those who lie, cheat and steal get ahead, at the expense of those who are fair and honest. Nice guys finish last. Good doesn’t always defeat evil. However, the Psalmist then goes on to comfort himself with the knowledge that, in the end, God will bring about justice: there is no wrong deed that will not go unpunished.

There’s only one problem with that:    ALL of us have done wrong things. Without exception…

So the problem with justice is: if God is totally just and judges every wrong deed, then that means that He will have to not only judge those who have sinned against us, but He will have to judge us as well.

But then, the Bible gives us the good news: for those who turn to the Lord, He will give them mercy!

But here’s the thing:   The definition of Justice is:  Giving someone what they deserve. On the other hand, the definition of Mercy is:  NOT giving someone what they deserve.

So, by definition: if you show someone mercy, then you are no longer being just! The two are diametrically opposed. So, if God shows mercy, doesn’t that mean He is no longer being just? Does one of God’s attributes therefore contradict another one of His attributes?

Isn’t mercy therefore a travesty of justice?

One of the great tensions of the Old Testament is the question of how God can be both Just and Merciful at the same time.

In my last post I wrote about another one of these great tensions: the question of whether the covenant with God is conditional or unconditional.

Neither of these tensions are actually resolved in the Old Testament. They only find their resolution in the New Testament – in Jesus.

The way that God can be both just and merciful at the same time, is because Jesus took all of the righteous judgment that we deserved, so that God could show us mercy. In this way, God remains completely just, and yet is able to show mercy without compromising his justice. In this way, He is both just and the justifier of the one who trusts in Jesus by faith. (Romans 3:26)

In Jesus, the Judge of all the Earth came to the Earth and took our judgment HIMSELF, so that we could be saved. It was the ultimate act of grace. 

Whereas justice is giving someone what they deserve, and mercy is not giving someone what they deserve, grace is giving someone something they don’t deserve.

Jesus is the answer to all the riddles.